NEW YORK — If the events of the last two years had unfolded differently, Charles Gibson would already be three weeks into retirement, readying for a trip this fall with his wife to Australia and New Zealand.
Instead, the 64-year-old newsman is helming the year's top-rated network evening broadcast, whose steady audience gains have drawn attention from some unexpected quarters.
Perhaps the most startling came from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who remarked upon the recent success of "World News" before Gibson interviewed him via satellite from Baghdad last month.
"He said, 'Boy, those ratings are terrific,' " Gibson recalled. " 'You guys are kicking some butt!'
"I said, 'General, there's a lot on your mind, and a lot of kids who depend on you, and I'm a little worried if you're aware of the ratings situation in television news.' I was just amazed that he happened to notice."
Petraeus isn't the only one who has taken note of ABC's turnaround. Nearly two years after the death of longtime anchor Peter Jennings and 18 months after one of Jennings' successors, Bob Woodruff, was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, the news division's flagship broadcast has rebounded with a speed that has startled even the top executives at ABC.
Since January, "World News" has averaged the largest network evening audience, beating the perennially first-place "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams." And the ABC newscast is tantalizingly close to stealing the crown for the season: As of last week, "World News" had drawn an average of 8.51 million viewers since September, compared with NBC's 8.6 million. ("CBS Evening News With Katie Couric" trails with 6.95 million.)
Much of the credit has gone to the genial anchor who seems delighted to find himself behind the desk every night.
"People should know how good these jobs are," said Gibson, grinning unabashedly. "They'd all be applying."
"Charlie is the real deal," said Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group. "I had a strong belief in Charlie, as did many people inside our company. Was the timing faster than what would be considered normal? Probably. But was the result surprising? No."
However, Gibson, who joined ABC in 1975, came close to leaving the network without ever getting the top job. News President David Westin approached him in the fall of 2005 about taking the post after Jennings died, but they couldn't agree on the length of his term. Instead, Westin named Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas co-anchors, and Gibson readied to retire.
After Woodruff was wounded, Westin again turned to Gibson, saying he knew the popular anchor would bring "a sense of stability to a staff that had really been rocked." Still, even after Gibson took the seat last Memorial Day, the news president said he expected the program to fall behind CBS for a time after Couric made her much-hyped debut.
But within four weeks into Couric's tenure, ABC was back in second. And by February, "World News" -- the only evening newscast to increase viewership -- was challenging NBC for first.
Westin attributes the gains, in large part, to Gibson's ability to offer a "comfort that has substance."
"Charlie doesn't come across as somebody who is talking down to anyone," he said. "It's the combination of talking in a collegial, respectful way, but at the same time, having something to say. It's not just anyone just walking in off the street and someone just handed them something that they're reading and they really don't know what they're reading, and they just look good and sound good."
For ABC News, Gibson's success on "World News" has not just meant bragging rights, but also a revenue boost that helps alleviate financial pressure at a time of industrywide cutbacks. (Sweeney said the company had been able to "monetize" the ratings gains, although she would not specify how much.)
But perhaps more significant has been the boost in spirits at a news division that was left emotionally battered by backto-back tragedies. Gibson's presence is like a tonic, staffers said.
"It's a completely new atmosphere," said correspondent Dan Harris, who also serves as the Sunday broadcast anchor. "Whereas at times it was tense or really sad, now there's some joy in the air. Clearly, he was the right anchor for us at the right time in terms of the broadcast, but internally he also was the right guy at the right time, because he is this healing figure who everyone respects."
Westin said he believed Gibson had helped ABC News move beyond its trials and focus on "the DNA of our organization."
"When things get really difficult, you need to go back to basics. And for this organization, that's about reporting," said Westin, citing recent scoops by chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross and Diane Sawyer's run of interviews in places like North Korea and Syria. "First and foremost, Charlie is a reporter, and that's what the broadcast is about."