Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Westin Calls It Quits

After nearly 14 years as the President of ABC News, David Westin is stepping down.

In an e-mail sent to colleagues on Labor Day, Mr. Westin announced his resignation as leader of the network's news division, effective today. Drudge had a copy of the e-mail almost as soon as it was dispatched; in the brief note, Westin described leading ABC News as a "great privilege and solemn responsibility."

Mr. Westin also said it was time for him to "move on," and explore "other things I want to do professionally." Pursuing those opportunities, he said, would impossible "while fulfilling my responsibilities here." In other words, it was the same sort of boilerplate we've seen in the resignations of hundreds of senior executives. So, what's the real story?

At least one ABC News employee tells Bill Carter of The New York Times that Westin's departure is rooted in a long-standing feud with Robert Iger, Chairman of the Walt Disney Company, which owns ABC. Mr. Iger had been pressuring Westin to make the news division more profitable, and to close the ratings gap with NBC, which leads in both the morning and evening news wars.

In response, Westin announced a 25% reduction in the news division's workforce, laying off 400 reporters, producers and technicians. While that move certainly helped the bottom line, Westin's recent anchor moves have done nothing to make ABC more competitive with NBC. And that's the main reason for his departure.

Consider these choices: when Diane Sawyer left Good Morning America to anchor ABC's World News, Mr. Westin decided to replace her with George Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton advisor who previously hosted the network's Sunday talk show, This Week. Never mind that Stephanopoulos is a less-than-compelling TV personality whose ratings rarely challenged Meet the Press in the ratings, even after the death of Tim Russert.

In the morning, Stephanopoulos and co-anchor Robin Roberts have consistently trailed the juggernaut that is NBC's Today show. Put another way: their second-place finish is more the result of CBS's perpetual failures in the morning news race, and not anything Mr. Stephanopoulos and Ms. Roberts have done for ABC.

During the evening news slot, the story is largely the same. Ms. Sawyer is a solid #2, but she still trails NBC's Brian Williams by a million viewers on some nights. And, as in the morning race, ABC owes its dinnertime performance (in part) to problems at CBS. Katie Couric has been a ratings disaster as anchor of the CBS Evening News; earlier this summer, her program reached an all-time low in viewership, renewing speculation that her days at the network are numbered.

And (perhaps) the final straw was Westin's selection of long-time CNN Correspondent Christiane Amanpour as the new host of This Week. She debuted in July to scathing reviews, and the program remains mired in third place. But Ms. Amanpour's contract pays her $2 million a year, leading some staffers to muse about how that money might have been better spent.

To be fair, Mr. Westin had a few successes during his tenure. He stabilized GMA by bringing back Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer after the disastrous tenure of Kevin Newman and Lisa McRee in the anchor chairs. Similarly, he made World News more competitive by making Gibson the anchor after Bob Woodruff was critically injured, covering the war in Iraq. Nightline also survived the retirement of Ted Koppel, utilizing a rotation of three, lesser-known anchors as his replacement.

But with network news programs hemorrhaging viewers (and no cable news division to offset those losses), ABC News finds itself in a difficult position. Some media accounts indicate that Mr. Westin was directed to begin merger talks with Bloomberg TV, and even Mr. Iger has hinted (broadly) that under-performing divisions at ABC may be put up for sale. A lawyer by training, Westin had no trouble reading between the lines and decided to leave now, before he was publicly forced out by his bosses at Disney.

So, who inherits the sinking ship? As of this writing, no replacement has been named, and there may be few volunteers. Yeah, the pay is great and the benefit package is second-to-none, but does any TV exec (in their right minds) want a job with no real future? Besides, Disney likes to promote within, even if it means picking someone with no prior news experience.

And that might not be a bad idea. In the late 1970s, the situation at ABC News was equally grim. The network's evening news show as a perpetual laggard, and few believed that ABC would ever rise out of third place. Almost out of desperation, someone had the bright idea of giving Roone Arledge a shot at running the division. After all, Mr. Arledge built ABC Sports into a global powerhouse in those days before ESPN.

As you may recall, the move was widely ridiculed, given Arledge's "lack of experience" in news. Not that he cared; determined to re-invent ABC News, Mr. Arledge installed a multiple-anchor format for the evening news program. He launched the network's first successful news magazine, 20/20; and during the Iran hostage crisis, he gave the green light for a daily, late-night summary of events that evolved into Nightline. He also spent freely on high-profile talent in an effort to attract more viewers. Within seven years, ABC had become the dominant organization in network news.

This time around, Mr. Westin's successor won't have that luxury. In the words of one analyst, the job of a news division president is about "managing decline." But that ignores a rather salient fact. Over the past 14 years, Fox News has become the king of cable news, largely by going against the grain of conventional wisdom and offering programming that is engaging and largely devoid of the liberal bias that populates most broadcast news operations.

Could a similar approach save ABC? The obvious answer is "no," but then again, no one gave Roone Arledge much of a chance 30 years ago, and FNC was widely ridiculed at its launch in 1996. One thing readily apparent in the history of TV news is there's always room for creative individuals who are willing to try something different and stick with it.

Unfortunately for ABC, the number of news executives with those credentials can be counted on one hand, and the best of that bunch (Roger Ailes) has a permanent home at Fox. However, Mr. Ailes has a number of talented lieutenants at FNC and News Corp, including John Moody, currently the content chief for FNC's parent company. The fact that individuals like Mr. Moody aren't being mentioned as candidates for the ABC job speaks volumes about why the network news divisions are in trouble, and (most likely) doomed to extinction.
ADDENDUM: Similar thoughts from Emily Miller, a senior editor at Human Events who previously worked as an associate producer at ABC News. She notes that Westin was out of his element from Day One:

I worked at the ABC News in the Washington, D.C., bureau when Westin was hand-picked by parent company Disney President Robert Iger (who’s now Disney CEO.)

Even now, I remember the shock and disappointment among the journalists that a lawyer—Westin—would be running their beloved news division.

He moved from D.C. to Manhattan when he got the ABC News job and quickly fell into an elitist, out-of-touch, mainstream media mindset. He fired the conservative Bill Kristol (who moved to Fox News) and promoted liberal journalists—Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos, Fareed Zakaria and, most recently, Christiane Amanpour.

Westin was not a news man. But, as time went on, Westin’s bigger problem was that he wasn’t a businessman. His management style was to only act out of fear for his own position. He also seemingly did Iger’s bidding without pushing back. He was risk averse.

But someone without a journalism background isn't always a bad choice to run a network news division. Roone Arledge comes instantly to mind; he built ABC News into a ratings and revenue powerhouse--something a string of "journalistic managers" proved unable to do.

And, in the days before Arledge, CBS News reached its zenith under Richard Salant, a former corporate counsel who led the news division during two stints in 1960s and 70s. Salant knew who buttered his bread, so he lavished resources on the CBS Evening News and its anchor, Walter Cronkite. Mr. Salant was also flexible enough to let Don Hewitt try something called 60 Minutes and fought to keep it on the schedule, despite poor ratings during its early years.

Incidentally, Richard Salant was moved out of the news division job in 1964, in part because of ratings problems during CBS's coverage of that year's political conventions, and a desire (in some network circles) to put a "newsman" back in charge. Salant was replaced, for two years, by Fred Friendly, the former executive producer of CBS Reports under Ed Murrow.

During his brief tenure, Friendly managed to antagonize everyone from Cronkite to members of the CBS board of directors. In 1966, he resigned in a huff, allegedly because the network aired an episode of The Lucy Show instead of Congressional hearings on U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The real problem, as insiders later reported, was that Friendly couldn't make his appeal directly to the CBS Chairman (William S. Paley) or its President (Frank Stanton) as previous news chiefs had done; instead, he had to go through another executive (broadcast group chairman Jack Schneider), a step he considered unnecessary and undignified. In fact, Friendly made Schenider's professional life so miserable that when Friendly left the network--and became Chairman of the Ford Foundation--the broadcast group chairman sent Friendly a batch of business cards, identifying him as Former President, CBS News.

After the Friendly debacle, Mr. Salant was welcomed back with open arms. Unfortunately for ABC, their "lawyer-as-leader" experiment turned out much, much differently. As Ms. Miller writes, the David Westin's successor will likely preside over the fire sale of ABC News to "anyone willing to take on the mess [he] left."

1 comment:

Corky Boyd said...

Excellent analysis.

You ask whether ABC News could follow in Fox's footsteps if they could find another Roone Arlidge. As you point out the obvious answer is no. In reality there is no way that could happen, obvious or not.

ABC News is so inbred with liberals it would take Atilla the Hun to clean house. The only newsman that harbors anything like a conservative thought is Jake Tapper, who I admire strongly especially for his challenge of the White House's vendetta against Fox News.

To show you how difficult it is to even include conservative ideas in the liberal dominated network news, when Katie Couric first started her tenure she sought to bring a diversity of opinion in the final segment. So she invited Rush Limbaugh. This so infuriated the producers, they loaded the first 15 minutes with three Bush/Republican hit pieces including one set-up about a diner owner in Jacksonville NC (home of Camp Lejeune) who had "turned" anti war. The conclusion: even the home of the Marine Corps was turning against the war. Such sabotage pretty well killed desire of conservatives to watch Katie if they had to wade through so much liberal propoganda.

Eventually you will likely see all three non-Fox networks dropping evening news entirely. All three have their roots in the entertainment business and news is alien to them. They simply don't understand it. Fox network doesn't do evening news and there is no FCC mandate for it.