How ABC News Plans To Stay No. 1

This is the first installment of a two-part series on ABC News, which features the pacesetting evening-news show and "Good Morning America."

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- ABC News has staged an improbable rise.

When longtime news anchor Peter Jennings succumbed to lung cancer in August 2005, staffers mourned the loss of their role model. Five months later, they prayed that one of his successors, Bob Woodruff, would recover from a near-fatal head injury he'd suffered while covering the war in Iraq.

"Things were pretty grim," concedes David Westin, the president of ABC News.

Then last November, ABC News suffered a jolt to its collective pride. When employees glanced in the direction of a Starbucks across the street from their New York headquarters, they noticed a banner that all but smirked at them.

An NBC promotion boasted that the network's "Today" and "Nightly News" shows had the most viewers. "NBC is rubbing its ratings in ABC's face," the New York Post's Page Six said at the time.

ABC can take solace from the triumph of its program "World News with Charles Gibson" in the May sweeps period. "[NBC] can't do that anymore because it's just not true," said Jon Banner, the show's executive producer, last week in reference to the marketing stunt.

ABC News noted that from May 28 to June 1, its "World News" was the leading evening-news show for the sixth consecutive week among total viewers, households and adults in the advertising sweet spot of the 25 to 54 age group. NBC News spokeswoman Barbara Levin counters that "NBC Nightly News" tied ABC's "World News" last week in the 25-54 group.

Last week, Diane Sawyer went a long way toward boosting ABC's "Good Morning America." TVNewser.com noted that Sawyer "scored what's probably the biggest get of the week: an exclusive interview with Andrew Speaker, otherwise known as the globe-trotting tuberculosis patient."

"The DNA for ABC News is reporting," Westin told me. "We're not about punditry and having more vivid opinions than other people have. We have to be able to report the facts that other people don't have."

ABC News also has gained a high profile from scoops generated by chief investigative reporter Brian Ross. "He has the instincts of an investigative reporter -- curiosity and skepticism," according to Westin.

Old school

What has propelled ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Co.?

It's too simple to conclude that the Starbucks snub alone sparked a competitive fury that carried ABC to its improbable victory. NBC's pomp did inadvertently help unite ABC News' employees. But above all, ABC's smart, old-school broadcasting strategy was the biggest factor.

The network presented a low-key, news-first broadcast at 6:30 p.m. and concentrated on securing interviews with newsmakers during "Good Morning America."

The third leg of the stool, "Nightline," has proven the early critics wrong (such as this columnist). "Nightline" consistently has aired a serious, well-paced late-night alternative to Leno and Letterman.

When ABC announced it would be replacing the venerable Ted Koppel, who had presided over "Nightline" shortly after the Iran hostage crisis began in 1979, plenty of people figured that the new program would be all about dumbing things down and showbiz as a way to lure young viewers. But the new "Nightline" has demonstrated that it can be as sophisticated as the shows during Koppel's golden age.

Rather than hype Gibson's arrival from breakfast-hour news -- as CBS did so clumsily with Katie Couric -- ABC put its faith in the intelligence of the viewers and trusted them to gravitate to Gibson.

From a journalistic point of view, news junkies should feel reassured by the success of ABC's less-is-more style. There has been too much clamor over "fake-news" shows like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report," and the trend favoring in-your-face hosts such as ill O'Reilly, Lou Dobbs and Keith Olbermann.

Westin

Westin has been at the center of ABC News' revival.

I asked him if he was surprised that Gibson's broadcast had overtaken that of NBC's Brian Williams. Westin nodded as he sensed what I was really asking: "How the ^#%& did ABC do it?"

"It happened more quickly than I would have thought," he said. "I always knew Charlie Gibson was a very strong anchor."

A cynic might shoot back at Westin: "Oh yeah? Then why didn't you originally name Gibson to succeed Jennings instead of appointing Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas?" Vargas withdrew from the position when she found out she was pregnant with her second child. She remains as the co-anchor of "20/20."

"I have no regrets," Westin commented. He said he was concerned that if he transferred Gibson to the 6:30 p.m. slot, "I'd compound the problem" by weakening "Good Morning America."

2008

Like every other media executive, Westin is salivating about the prospect for juicy headlines during wide-open presidential campaigns next year. Yes, ABC News will bolster its coverage of such domestic issues as health care, immigration and what he called "the looming explosion in retirement costs."

Still, Westin has no illusions about what story will lead the coverage. "Iraq is the top five issues and No. 6 is Iraq," he added.

I asked Westin what he most proud of and what represented his biggest regret at ABC News.

He said that his greatest satisfaction stemmed from pairing Gibson and Sawyer on "Good Morning America." His biggest disappointment centered on conversations he had had with Jennings before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

"Peter said, 'Don't count on WMDs.' I said, 'Peter, I guarantee you, there are WMDs.' I regret not listening to him."

If Westin could do it over again, he said: "I'd assign Brian Ross to investigate the WMDs."

Westin said that the intelligence reports coming out of Iraq apparently "underestimated Saddam Hussein's wiliness."

For now, Westin is spending a lot of his time pondering the digital platform. "What do we do about it? How do we flourish in a really different world?"

One thing seems likely: In any media, ABC News will continue to focus on reporting in its smart, no-frills way.

MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you like or dislike about ABC News?

WEDNESDAY PET PEEVE: ESPN's broadcasts of NBA games simply aren't as exciting, informative or entertaining as those on TNT. Marv Albert has no peer at doing play-by-play commentary, and the rest of the gang provide insightful, often hilarious analysis. This was apparent as TNT, a division of Time Warner Inc. , aired the Eastern Conference finals and ESPN handled the Western Conference showdown. ESPN ought to take notes.

THE READERS RESPOND to my column about Dylan Ratigan of CNBC: "I enjoy Dylan and the show 'Fast Money.' My only problem with him is he sometimes is so worried about what he has to say [that] he talks over the 'experts.' He can be funny and he does a good job of summarizing what has been said; every now and then he just needs to be quiet and let someone else talk." Larry Smith

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By Jon Friedman