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October 24, 2014

Diane Sawyer's Ratings Success at ABC's 'World News': Lessons Learned

by Gary Susman, posted Jan 27th 2010 2:30PM
While NBC has been mired in a public bloodbath over job changes among some high-profile employees, ABC has quietly and smoothly managed the job transition between two of its biggest on-air personalities, Charlie Gibson and Diane Sawyer. Not only did Sawyer's replacement of Gibson last month as anchor of 'World News' occur with a minimum of fuss and strife, but it also has met the network's goal, at least so far, of a ratings boost for the nightly newscast.

Network newscasts have been gradually but inexorably losing viewers for years, so Sawyer's ratings spike -- in the month she's been on the job, she's averaged 8.8 million viewers, up about 8 percent from the show's seasonal average -- is reason for ABC to cheer. And while these numbers don't tell the whole story, they do suggest some lessons about the right way for networks to handle change amid the current upheaval in their industry.

Keep the backstage drama to a minimum. There were rumors of behind-the-scenes antagonism between Sawyer and Gibson, but if they were true, they weren't played out in public, and certainly not on the air on ABC. In print interviews and on TV, no one at ABC News had anything but kind words for each other.

Don't overhype the transition. Remember what a big deal CBS made about its hiring of Katie Couric to anchor its evening newscast a couple years ago? The hype created expectations the show couldn't meet, and today, her show is in third place among the network newscasts. ABC, on the other hand, made its transition with as little fanfare as possible, waiting until just a few days before the succession to announce when it would take place. Sawyer hit the ground running during her first newscast on Dec. 21, treating the event as if it were business as usual, with only a quick shout-out to Gibson at the end of the newscast to mark the switch.

Change is good. Gibson may have been comfortable to remain behind his desk most nights; not Sawyer. In her first month, she's already made four trips, anchoring the newscast from Copenhagen, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Washington, D.C. She's had one-on-ones with the presidents of Iran, Afghanistan and the United States. Her aggressive style has brought new energy to the program.

• But not too much change. Aside from her extensive travel and her conversational tone with ABC field correspondents, Sawyer hasn't done much to change the format of 'World News.' The changes have been subtle or have taken place away from the broadcast (for instance, Sawyer is a far more active contributor to ABC's Web site than Gibson was). "We did not promise in any way that we are going to be changing evening news," ABC News senior vice-president Jeffrey Schneider told New York magazine recently. Which is probably good, since, as conventional wisdom has it, network newscast audiences tend to be older people who don't like change.

Have more gravitas than the competition. Sure, Sawyer came to the job from years spent at 'Good Morning America,' but she also had a hard-news background that made it easier for evening news viewers to take her seriously than they did fellow morning infotainment show alumna Couric. Perhaps by virtue of her age (64) and experience (as well as demeanor), Sawyer also seems more serious than NBC's Brian Williams, whose cheeky side isn't always restricted to cameos on '30 Rock.' It's a safe bet you're not going to see Sawyer lampoon herself on a guest spot on, say, ABC's 'Cougar Town' anytime soon.

Star power counts. Sawyer was a bigger star than Gibson even before she replaced him; in fact, with the possible exception of Barbara Walters, she's the biggest star at ABC News. She's also at least as famous, if not more so, than her rivals at CBS and NBC. That she's easy on the eyes doesn't hurt, either.

Timing helps. Sawyer's first month has been a big news month, especially with the Haitian earthquake. Her coverage, including her on-the-scene reports, suggests that, at a time when newspapers are dying and TV news outlets are cutting back on overseas bureaus, there are still some things that deep-pocketed network news can do that other media don't have the resources to do, and that if you offer more comprehensive coverage instead of going no-frills, you can actually grow your audience. In fact, ratings for all three network newscasts are up. According to TV by the Numbers, NBC's is up 9 percent, and CBS's is up 7 percent, boosts similar to Sawyer's. Which leads to the final lesson ...

• Spin the numbers in your favor.
A less charitable view of the recent ratings increases at the three networks would be to say that ABC is still in second place, and that NBC has recently widened its lead. Fortunately for Sawyer, she's been the beneficiary of some very friendly coverage (like this Los Angeles Times report) that hasn't acknowledged the competition's ratings spikes as well, or that there's a lot of credit to go around. If the network nightly newscasts can really be saved, Sawyer's not going to be able to do it alone.

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