ABC News says it is trying to break the mold of the evening news format with its frequent-flier team of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, and it may take viewers some time to grasp it.
Since the "World News Tonight" team debuted three weeks ago, Vargas or Woodruff has anchored from Iran, Israel, West Virginia, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Woodruff is headed back to the Middle East next week.
Although one anchor is usually in ABC's New York studio, chances are the other is on the road. They also spend very little time onscreen together.
"This is more of a change than people appreciate, really, what we're trying to do fundamentally," ABC News President David Westin said on Saturday. "It will take some time for people to get used to it and understand it."
For two decades, the broadcast evening newscasts with Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather were basically the same, he said. Real differences are emerging now that they are gone.
Westin said that upon reflecting on Jennings' legacy after the anchor's death from cancer last August, he recognized the need for anchors who were more reporters than newsreaders. He'd rather have an anchor out on the street than sitting in a studio talking to newsmakers, he said.
"It provides an opportunity for viewers to see a more in-depth coverage of the story and a more personal coverage of the story," Vargas said. "It makes us better anchors to be out in the field reporting on a regular basis."
The plan, coupled with ABC's decision to start a live newscast for the West Coast, was impossible for one person to handle, Westin said.
"In my mind, this has nothing to do with Dan Rather and Connie Chung, or nothing to do with Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters," said Westin, distancing himself from two failed network anchor teams.
Ratings leader NBC "Nightly News" has a sole anchor with Brian Williams. While Bob Schieffer fills in at the "CBS Evening News," the network is searching for a full-time anchor, and CBS News President Sean McManus said this week it will be one person.
Before appointing Vargas and Woodruff, Westin talked to Charles Gibson about anchoring for an interim period. But the two men couldn't agree on how long, he said.
"We were always going to Bob and Elizabeth," he said. "The question was when."
The duo has had a rocky ratings start. Dating back to last fall, when either Vargas or Woodruff served as interim anchors, NBC's "Nightly News" has increased its lead over ABC, and third-place "CBS Evening News" has been gaining.
Westin brushed aside concerns about the ratings. He said he made a decision to set up the institution for the next two decades.
Forming judgments based on early ratings is "like trying to guess how the Super Bowl is going to come out after one down," he said.