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Future of ABC morning anchor is question of day

January 12, 2007|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — At ABC News, the talk lately has centered on one question: What's Diane going to do?

After a year in which the television news industry absorbed Katie Couric's move to "CBS Evening News" and Meredith Vieira's jump to NBC's "Today" show, Diane Sawyer is poised to trigger more upheaval as she mulls whether to continue her eight-year run on "Good Morning America."

The departure of Sawyer -- arguably the news division's biggest luminary -- would be a substantial blow to "GMA," the most profitable program at ABC News and a show on which she has considerable influence.

Sawyer has not yet given news executives an indication of her plans, according to network sources. The 61-year-old anchor is known for being inscrutable, but those close to her believe she has in fact not yet made up her mind about whether to remain on the morning show. One factor complicating her decision: the lack of other A-list broadcasting jobs currently up for grabs.

The uncertainty about her next move has caused considerable anxiety among ABC officials, who are not eager to see her leave "GMA" on the heels of her longtime co-anchor Charles Gibson, who switched over to the evening newscast last spring.

Executives fret that "GMA" would founder without her, especially as the program is still finding its footing since the arrival of two new on-air hires this season: news anchor Chris Cuomo and weatherman Sam Champion. Anchor Robin Roberts has been in her post since May 2005 but has a lower profile than her well-known co-host.

Sawyer has two more years on her ABC contract, but her obligation to "GMA" is less explicit. She originally joined the show in 1999 with Gibson on a temporary basis to help shore up the second-place program, a status that has not technically changed.

After Gibson moved to "World News," Sawyer said she planned to stay at "GMA" through at least part of 2007.

"I love these people and I love their passion, and I learn from them daily," she said in an interview in June. "I am going to stay and do whatever I can to make it strong and stable."

Sawyer declined to comment this week on her plans, but ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said her commitment to "GMA" has no timetable.

"She is very much enjoying what she's doing right now," Schneider added. "She is very engaged, loves the new team and has had an incredible run of great reporting."

As network executives nervously await Sawyer's move, they have sought to emphasize her value to the network. One project in the works, though its timing is uncertain: a marketing campaign that would showcase the anchor's body of work, including her reporting from North Korea last fall, according to sources familiar with the plans.

Many ABC insiders regard the plan for promotional spots, which would not include the rest of the "GMA" team, as an effort to stress the network's appreciation of the longtime broadcaster.

"It's SOS -- saving our Sawyer," said a source familiar with internal discussions, who -- like others knowledgeable about the state of affairs -- declined to be named because of the situation's sensitivity.

"Everything they are doing is designed to keep her, to make her happy."

Ground lost to 'Today'

While Sawyer's immediate plans remain an enigma, her future on "GMA" is widely viewed as intertwined with the fortunes of the program.

Since Gibson left, the morning show has lost ground to top-rated "Today," whose lead over "GMA" has grown from an average of 670,000 viewers at this point last season to 825,000 viewers so far this season, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Colleagues said the program's status frustrates Sawyer, who has also tired of some of the more frivolous segments on the two-hour show. They describe her as someone concerned about her legacy and seeking to round out her career immersed in journalism that has a social impact.

"I think that Diane is searching," said a veteran staffer close to the anchor. "I think she truly doesn't know what's next for her and what's next for the business. She's no dummy, and she understands what the numbers are doing. And I can't image she thinks they're going to catch them."

Nevertheless, network sources said Sawyer returned re-energized from her recent trip to South Africa, where she covered the opening of Oprah Winfrey's new academy for underprivileged girls. Back in New York, she called a slew of meetings to brainstorm story ideas and tackled with new vigor a piece about poverty in Camden, N.J., that she's doing for the newsmagazine "Primetime."

If she decided to leave "GMA," her exit would generate more instability for a news division that weathered the turmoil of Peter Jennings' death and the subsequent wounding in Iraq of anchor Bob Woodruff, one of his successors.

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