NEW YORK — Hugh Downs, co-anchor of "20/20" since its second broadcast in June, 1978, says he was so angry when ABC said it would shift the series from Thursday to Friday nights this fall that he began thinking of leaving.
"I'm not happy about it," Downs said Wednesday of the shift. "My contract will be up in October, and I've had some serious thoughts about whether I want to go in some other direction."
But he'll stay with the durable news magazine at least until then, partly to see how "20/20" fares in its new time slot, partly to see what ABC offers him in a new contract, he said. He wants more time off, not more money, he said.
Barbara Walters, his co-anchor on the ABC News magazine series, said that she wasn't happy with the move to Friday nights either, preferring that it remain scheduled at Thursdays at 10 p.m., where it has survived the competition and prospered for seven seasons.
"But on the other hand," she said Wednesday, "I don't think this is the kiss of death. . . . I think we'll be OK. I don't feel any panic here."
There has been considerable uproar, however, as some ABC News staffers believe "20/20's" new home on Fridays at 10 p.m. is a graveyard. They don't regard Friday as a good night for serious news, and the program will be competing against NBC's new "Private Eye" and CBS' still-chirping "Falcon Crest" (which is produced by Lorimar Telepictures, the company headed by Walters' husband, Merv Adelson).
Downs said that he realized many complex factors went into ABC's decision to move "20/20." But he said he agreed with ABC News President Roone Arledge, who, in a staff memo, praised the program but pilloried ABC programmers, whose prime-time schedule last season was third in the ratings for the third consecutive season.
Regardless of the program's strength, importance and success, Arledge wrote, it "simply could not prevail against those seeking a way out of a historic entertainment failure." An ABC spokeswoman responded to Arledge's remarks by saying that the network appreciates his concern and that, while the "20/20" move was "a tough decision," it nonetheless was in "the best interests of the company as a whole."
Despite a poor lead-in from "The Colbys," which in turn had a poor lead-in from ABC News' just-canceled "Our World," "20/20" averaged a respectable 24% share of audience in its time period last season, according to ABC estimates.
Downs said he thinks "20/20" may survive in its new time period, but he wasn't as confident as Walters.
Back in the golden days of radio, he recalled, a popular comedy series, "Vic and Sade," died because Procter & Gamble, which produced it, kept moving it around on the schedule to replace any P&G soap opera that faltered.
"When the loyal fans of 'Vic and Sade' got tired of trying to follow it around the clock and the ratings declined, they (Procter & Gamble) killed it on the grounds it was no longer a good program," Downs said.
"And that parallel haunts me. . . . I think the people who made the decision (to shift "20/20") probably say, 'Thursday night at 10 p.m. seems to be a good time slot' " for an entertainment program, he said.
"They don't think it's become a good time slot because of a good program. So now they're going to move us out. And if we don't do as well on Friday, they'll say, 'Hey, maybe "20/20" wasn't as hot as we thought it was.' "