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Diane Sawyer has immediate effect on ABC's 'World News'

The evening newscast's ratings have spiked 8% since she took over as anchor four weeks ago.

January 25, 2010|By Matea Gold
  • 'WORLD NEWS': Diane Sawyer began in December.
'WORLD NEWS': Diane Sawyer began in December. (Ida Mae Astute / ABC )

Reporting from New York — When she took over anchoring ABC's evening newscast last month after 11 years of rising before dawn to host "Good Morning America," Diane Sawyer thought she would finally get to catch up on her sleep. Charles Gibson, Sawyer's predecessor on "World News" and her former co-host on "GMA," had promised her, "Oh, you won't believe the difference," she recalled.

So much for that.

Sawyer kicked off her tenure by traveling to Copenhagen to confront Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about his nuclear ambitions.

A few weeks later, she was in Afghanistan, where she shadowed U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and questioned President Hamid Karzai about corruption in his administration. As she prepared to leave Kabul, Sawyer got word about the deadly earthquake in Haiti and rushed to Port-au-Prince to cover the aftermath, a journey of 20 hours.

Today, she's in Washington to interview President Obama for an exclusive sitdown before the State of the Union.

"I want to write Charlie and say, 'You tricked me!' " Sawyer said with a laugh, back in her New York office Friday during a rare lull in the news.

But she's not complaining. After more than two decades at ABC, the 64-year-old anchor has finally secured the post that colleagues say it was clear she had long sought.

"I do think that I'm probably addicted, if anything, to stretching, and I love the idea of something that is challenging in a new way," she said. "That I love. It wasn't about a position for me.

"It is a thrilling vantage point," she said happily in her snug second-floor office. Dressed in an oversized zip-up cardigan over a fleece vest and black stretch pants, her eyes framed by magenta-colored glasses, she looked more like a college student than a network anchor. "It's a chance to think, plan and have a conversation that ripens all day long into what you collectively believe you are as a broadcast."

In her short time, Sawyer has already introduced some subtle changes -- most notably, adding more on-set conversations with correspondents about their stories.

And she's urged the staff to devote more resources to long-range pieces, though she refused to divulge topics. "I don't want anyone to do them until we do!" she said with a grin.

ABC took a purposefully low-key approach to Sawyer's arrival, putting her on the air right before Christmas without a significant marketing push. So newsroom executives are especially pleased that the audience already appears to be responding.

In her first four weeks as anchor, "World News" averaged 8.8 million viewers, a spike of 8% over its season-to-date average, though it still trails the top-rated "NBC Nightly News."

"Her curiosity, her energy, I think have really given a lift to the program," said executive producer Jon Banner.

Sawyer was known for her hands-on involvement at "GMA," taking an interest in details like video selection, and she's brought that approach to "World News."

"She knows, 'Let's put this picture here, let's do this story here,' " Banner said. "She's a huge contributor to the entire experience of the half hour, which is just great from my point of view."

When the quake hit Haiti, Sawyer and her team in Kabul scrambled to find the quickest way to Port-au-Prince. After traveling all day and night, they arrived in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and boarded a plane, only to be turned back from the Port-au-Prince airport. On the ground, they finagled a few spots on a private helicopter that finally got Sawyer into the country.

"It was the central story and I wanted to know when I came on the air at night what it felt like, how it was to breathe that air," Sawyer explained, calling the destruction there "inexpressible."

The anchor, who did two broadcasts of "World News" from Haiti and a one-hour prime-time special, slept in a chair at the airport amid jet fumes and the roar of planes.

Sawyer professes to have "negative vanity," calling it "bliss" not to have to get her hair and makeup done first thing in the morning now.

In a new daily feature dubbed “The Conversation” on ABCNews.com, a decidedly unglamorous Sawyer, wearing casual clothes and glasses, chats by webcam with correspondents about the news of the day. The segments show viewers a personal side of the anchor, who admitted to correspondent Jake Tapper in one that her eyes are so bad that she can't read the big E on eye charts, a condition she blames on reading "Gone With the Wind" by the dim light cast by an electric blanket.

Sawyer seems prepared to embrace more new media than Gibson, who posted little material online. Aside from doing "The Conversation," she said she will likely blog and tweet.

But she's still bullish on the power of her newscast, despite the fact that the network news programs have shed millions of viewers since she got her start in broadcasting in 1967 as a local television reporter in Louisville, Ky.

"We can still bring facts to the world that, like Archimedes' fulcrum, can move the whole political debate," Sawyer said. "The expectation that you're not there to entertain, you're there to inform and enrich, I think give these broadcasts enormous heft still."

matea.gold@latimes.com

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