NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- The anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight with Charles Gibson" is a reluctant star.
A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon interviewing ABC News leaders at the network's headquarters near Lincoln Center in Manhattan. One by one, they talked happily about ABC's surge to the top of the network-news heap. If anybody had a right to take a victory lap, it was Gibson.
Yet, he said: "We haven't won anything yet. And I don't know when we will."
Gibson, 64, recognizes that a show can go from first to third. Last September, when Katie Couric debuted as the anchor of the CBS evening-news program, she was No. 1, momentarily displacing NBC's Brian Williams. Gibson? He was an afterthought at the time. Starting last fall, the ratings for his show got stronger from month to month, indicating that he was catching on.
In the ultimate sign of approval, ABC's "World News" just completed its seventh consecutive week as the top newscast in total viewers and households. ABC says it has been No. 1 as well in the key 25-to-54 age group, while NBC insisted there was a tie in one of those weeks.
Nevertheless, Gibson, who had previously co-anchored ABC's "Good Morning America," would have preferred to visit his dentist than talk to a journalist about his success. He wanted nothing more than to get back to work on that evening's broadcast. The man is all business, the Gary Cooper of anchors.
That Gibson's audience is growing is remarkable in itself. By contrast, Katie Couric's show on CBS is in a ratings freefall. NBC News , having surrendered the top spot at 6:30 p.m. to ABC, is nervous.
Predictably, the person least impressed by this development is Gibson. "I'm not a great fan of the ratings," he said.
"I'm stumped about how it reverberates," Gibson shrugged. "We're a country of list-makers."
Then he contemplated how the despondent newspaper companies have it easier on one level, since the public is fixated on factoids such as television ratings and box-office tallies. "I wish we published newspaper circulations!" Gibson exclaimed.
If there was a turning point in making progress with the audience, it occurred on election night last November. Gibson got extra time on the tube and his confidence grew.
"The time flew by," Gibson told me, still pleased at how well it went. "I thought during the show, 'I'm having fun!' It was a seminal moment."
Gibson fulfilled ABC News President David Westin's institutional goal of establishing himself and passing the torch from Peter Jennings. Gibson said that Westin wanted him "to tell people that Peter [Jennings] is gone and you're here."
Nobody has a more authoritative take on Gibson's progress than his executive producer, Jon Banner. ABC News "needed time for people to find Charlie and for Charlie to make it show," Banner commented.
Jennings' death in August 2005, from lung cancer, was a tragedy at ABC on many levels. His colleagues lost a friend and a mentor. Plus, the network lost a symbol of excellence and trust. The team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas originally succeeded Jennings, but the master plan went awry early on.
Woodruff was badly injured while on assignment in Iraq. Vargas became pregnant and wanted to withdraw from the rigors of an evening broadcast. Westin (finally) tapped Gibson for the slot, and the decision has paid off handsomely.
Gibson feels no satisfaction over the "Perils of Pauline"-like travails of Couric. Her problems "have distressed me," he said. "I want Katie to work."
I asked him if he has given any advice to Couric. He smiled and said, "I might ask herfor advice." In other words, don't look for Gibson to give away any trade secrets.
Gibson prefers to keep his own cunsel. He spends more time critiquing his work than reveling in his accomplishments. "Nobody is more self-critical than I am," he asserted.
As proof, he said, "I stumbled on two words yesterday. It drove me crazy."
It's telling that Gibson has hanging on an office wall a signed uniform from Cal Ripken Jr., the Baltimore Orioles shortstop who was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in January. Ripken is best known for playing in a record 2,632 consecutive games. Gibson, like Ripken, is all about a solid work ethic.
The quintessential Gibson answer came when I asked him why he thinks people like to watch him on TV.
He didn't even blink before answering, "I have no idea."
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you like or dislike about ABC's Charles Gibson?
WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: Reporters who ask newsmakers stupid questions designed to provoke "gotcha" answers should be embarrassed. At the breakfast sponsored by the Newhouse School and the New Yorker on Tuesday, someone asked CBS Chief Executive Les Moonves if there was a "bottom" to Katie Couric's ratings woes on the evening-news broadcast. Moonves justifiably called out the journalist for asking a silly question.
THE READERS RESPOND to my column about CBS News: "First of all, I don't like celebrity much. Used to watch [Katie Couric] on 'Today' and stopped because it was too much about Katie. The media hype about the courting and then marketing of Katie was a big turnoff, and only served to reinforce her celebrityness and gender. So I don't like that it's more about her personality than her qualifications. Really, why would anyone watch her for an important story over NBC or ABC? I watch the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and find all the women on that program to be a lot more professional and knowledgeable than Katie, and I wouldn't mind seeing any of them as a broadcast-news anchor. If I were to watch network news I'd watch Charlie Gibson -- I just like him and think he does a good job, and his personality doesn't get in the way." Linda Strand
(Media Web appears on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Feel free to write to me at .)
By Jon Friedman