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Diane vs. Katie: Let the Battle Begin

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For the first time ever on Monday, December 21, two women will anchor the evening news broadcasts for two major TV networks. Three years ago, Katie Couric succeeded Bob Schieffer, and now Diane Sawyer will follow Charlie Gibson, her former co-host on Good Morning America, to become the anchor on ABC’s World News Tonight.

charlie-and-diane1Is this a milestone for women in TV news? Or more evidence that evening news broadcasts on the networks have slipped in importance and popularity? While the 6:30 p.m. news shows on the three major networks attract fewer viewers than in Walter Cronkite’s time, more people tune in, around the clock in some cases, to watch CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, and a host of other cable news channels. Cable news programs have created a whole new raft of stars—Rachel Maddow, Liz McDonald, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Anderson Cooper, and so on. What, then, are we to surmise from this move at ABC?

Walter Cronkite’s death earlier this year caused news hounds to look back to a time when network news ruled and anchors like Cronkite were kings. Besides Cronkite this Hall of Fame lineup of news broadcasters included Edward R. Murrow, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, Peter Jennings, John Chancellor, Harry Reasoner, among others. Women were never gained admission to this elite club. Barbara Walters came close when she was named co-anchor with Harry Reasoner. (For Barbara’s account on this pairing from hell, read her autobiography, Audition: A Memoir). After Peter Jennings death, ABC created another team of Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas. Unfortunately, Woodruff was seriously injured in Iraq and when Vargas announced she was pregnant, that plan was scrapped and Charlie Gibson was awarded the job he had sought and lost out on earlier.

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What really turned this battleship around, however, was Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin. Charges that Couric didn’t have the serious news credentials needed to occupy the CBS anchor chair suddenly went out the window. Despite Palin’s whining in her current autobiography about Couric’s treatment of her, Couric’s talents not only nailed the interview but also doomed John McCain’s campaign. (Gibson’s earlier sit down with Palin paled by comparison). Of all the interviews done before, during and after the campaign, none had the force to alter events as did Couric’s sit down with the Republican vice presidential candidate.

That interview alone, however, wouldn’t have been enough to create enthusiasm for Couric’s broadcast. She does that every night by selecting interesting stories that the other networks overlook. And, when she has the opportunity, she does the interview that needs to be done.

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Sawyer’s background is solid and she is probably the best person at ABC (or elsewhere, in fact) to bring some excitement and integrity to World News Tonight. She and Couric are alike in many respects. They both spent time on morning news programs. They have both chased the important interview and scored a number of times. And they both have huge followings.

gmaNBC Nightly News with Brian Williams still leads in the ratings. His broadcast draws an average of 8.7 million viewers, while Gibson at ABC, 7.8 million, and Couric, 6.1. After Couric took over, many viewers switched to watch her and many stayed. Now, the curious will no doubt sample Sawyer’s broadcast.

Sawyer’s last week at GMA was characterized by looking back and lots of tears. On the morning news program, Sawyer was never afraid to show her sensitive side or to let lose and have fun. (Neither was Couric on the Today Show, but she has had a harder time distancing herself from that playful persona). Sawyer won’t have to clear that hurdle. Her toughness is well established (remember when she spent time as an inmate in a maximum security prison for women? Even knowing the incarceration was temporary would have unnerved even the most secure news person). Also, however, Katie has now paved the way.

Couric was gracious upon learning that Sawyer would be her new competition, joking that, like herself, Diane would not miss hearing her alarm go off at such an early hour. Pundits may look at this development—women as anchors—as proof that evening network news no longer matters so who cares if women now nab those jobs. We look at it another way. With two smart, forceful women now leading the news coverage at two major networks (remember the anchor will also be the face when President Obama delivers a major address to the public or Congress, when there is a national disaster, an important election, or anything else that halts regular programming), the quality of network coverage will improve. And that’s good news.

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