George Wins ABC’s ‘Chief Anchor’ Crown

Lloyd Grove

Taking their cue from King Solomon, the folks who run ABC News are not only threatening to split the baby, they are actually doing it.

In a generational shift Tuesday at the Disney-owned broadcast network—which has been giving NBC News ratings heartburn in recent weeks—news division President James Goldston announced that Diane Sawyer, 68, will be leaving the anchor chair at World News Tonight in September to concentrate on Barbara Walters-style interviews and specials.

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Meanwhile, 20/20 anchor David Muir, 40, will be taking Sawyer’s place in a diminished role, and George Stephanopoulos, 53, will be filling the novel position of chief anchor, leading ABC’s live coverage on breaking stories and election nights—a job that would traditionally go to Muir—while keeping his seat on Good Morning America and the Washington Sunday show, This Week.

Despite ecstatic expressions of happiness by all concerned in multiple ABC News press releases, the new arrangement sets up a potential rivalry between Muir, who can’t be expected to be satisfied as a mere news reader “doing six intros a night,” as one insider put it, and Stephanopoulos, who made the chief anchor job a condition of his re-upping six weeks ago for a long-term ABC News contract.

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If so, the model-handsome Muir will have his work cut out for him; Stephanopoulos, a longtime Democratic political operative who was a top aide in Bill Clinton’s White House, is a skilled and formidable bureaucratic infighter. It certainly helps him that GMA, under Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts—whom Tuesday’s press releases described as “the heart of ABC News”—has consistently beat NBC’s Today show for the past two years. He will continue to anchor This Week With George Stephanopoulos , which has frequently been in first place opposite NBC’s Meet The Press and CBS’s Face The Nation, every other Sunday.

The miraculously youthful-looking Sawyer, in her former life the tiara-wearing winner of the Junior Miss pageant and a White House aide under Richard Nixon, will, as usual, float above the fray. A former star at CBS’s 60 Minutes as well as GMA, she has been anchoring ABC’s signature news program since December 2009 and bested NBC’s Brian Williams in the all-important 25-54 age demographic, on which advertising rates are set, during the May ratings sweeps.

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Here is ABC’s press release announcing the talent shuffle:

ABC News today announced new roles for anchors Diane Sawyer, George Stephanopoulos and David Muir. Sawyer will lead new programming tackling big issues and extraordinary interviews. Stephanopoulos, Anchor of Good Morning America and This Week, has been promoted to Chief Anchor of ABC News, handling special reports and breaking news. Muir, Anchor of 20/20, will become Anchor and Managing Editor of World News starting September 2. 

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"We have an extraordinary team of anchors who are gifted storytellers and uniquely skilled broadcasters,” said James Goldston, president, ABC News. “For years to come, they will inspire us all to do our best work and set a high bar for excellence to inform, empower and inspire our viewers.”

After leading World News, the network's flagship broadcast, for nearly five years and to a number one finish in the May sweep, Sawyer has decided to step aside from anchoring a daily program to concentrate full time on new programming. She will lead a team to create and commission original reporting and major interviews for all ABC News programs and platforms.  Sawyer will anchor and produce television specials and continue to interview the most extraordinary people in the world.

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“For many years to come Diane will be a driving force at ABC News with her exceptional storytelling genius,” he added. “She is one of the giants of modern journalism. Her curiosity, passion and energy are unmatched, and I can’t wait to see where she’ll lead us next.”

"After wonderful years at "World News" I decided it is time to move to a new full time role at ABC News. I'll be joined by an incredible team of journalists dedicated to enterprise reporting, innovative approaches to breaking news and new ways of thinking about big issues and events around the world," Sawyer said. "I can't wait to continue bringing more of my specials to prime time and appearing on all ABC News broadcasts, as well. And to my friends and colleagues George and David - congratulations. I look forward to exciting work together and great times ahead."

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World News won the May Sweep in Adults 25-54, the evening broadcast’s first sweeps victory in more than six years.  Season to date, World News is up versus the same point last year in both Total Viewers and Adults 25-54, delivering its most-watched season in five years and best news demo number in three years. World News is the only evening newscast to improve on its news demo performance from the previous season compared to NBC and CBS.

Stephanopoulos will add the duties of Chief Anchor of ABC News to his responsibilities.  For the last four years he has helped lead Good Morning America to number one, and after returning to the program two years ago, has driven This Week to its best competitive position in a generation. In his new role Stephanopoulos will also lead the network’s coverage of special events and breaking news. 

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The best political journalist on television, Stephanopoulos will also lead ABC News’ election coverage starting with the mid-terms this fall, the 2016 presidential race and beyond.

“George skillfully navigates uncertain and unfolding situations.  He is adept at balancing both complex global and public policy questions and deeply personal and emotional stories,” said Goldston. “He brings to all our programs and live coverage his tremendous intellect, competitive drive and unwavering work ethic. The news division simply could not be in stronger hands with George in this new and vital role.”

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“Getting the chance to do work you love—work that touches people’s lives every day—is one of life’s greatest privileges,” said Stephanopoulos. “Even luckier is when you get to do that work with the best in the business—Diane, David and our entire ABC News team. It's an honor to be part of that team. I can't wait to build on our success—and bring our viewers our best—for years to come."

GMA stands as the No. 1 morning news program for the 2nd-straight year in both Total Viewers and Adults 25-54. This Week is delivering its strongest performance in five years and won the May sweep in Adults 25-54, the first sweeps victory in the key news demo in nearly 21 years.

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Starting September 2, Muir will become Anchor and Managing Editor of World News. 

For a decade Muir has been front and center on nearly every major news story for World News, first reporting for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. Muir’s dispatches from around the world have been a staple for World News viewers. He was the first American journalist to report from Mogadishu, Somalia on the worst famine in a generation, coming under fire while reporting from the war-torn city. In 2013, Muir took viewers into Iran, getting rare access to the streets of Tehran. We will continue to see David report from all over the world, contributing to all programs and platforms of ABC News.  

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His Emmy-nominated “Made in America” series has become a hallmark of World News. He has filed more than 100 reports on U.S. companies creating jobs in America.  

“David has made his reputation reporting from the ground on every big story of recent times, and we know that when big stories happen, wherever they happen, David will be there for us and for our audience,” said Goldston. “I am thrilled he is taking the helm at World News.”

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“On this incredibly humbling day, I think of the 12-year-old boy with a dream of being a reporter and seeing the world. I never could have imagined seeing that world with Diane Sawyer,” said Muir. “On this day I thank her for not only setting the bar for the rest of us, but for being a trusted friend. I cannot wait to begin this new adventure with Diane and with George, whose political brain power and endless curiosity inspire me, and drive us all to be better every day.”

In 2013, Muir was named co-anchor of ABC’s 20/20, which closed out the 2013-2014 season with its highest ratings in five years. He will continue to co-anchor the program with Elizabeth Vargas.

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