Analysis: Sawyer finally tapped

Diane Sawyer

Diane Sawyer's appointment as anchor of ABC's World News was dubbed "a watershed moment" by the Women's Media Center. "It means that two of three of the major network anchors are women."

True, Katie Couric now has company. But watershed? Uh, no.

Sawyer was passed over twice previously for the post, despite 30 years of network experience and -- not so inconsequentially in a visual medium that promotes female pulchritude -- being the most glamorous woman in television news.

After ABC News President David Westin tried unsuccessfully to get Charlie Gibson to remain as anchor, he tapped Sawyer. "This was not a result I wanted," he said of Gibson's leaving. In making the Sawyer announcement, he inelegantly put it that she had "more than paid her dues and waited her turn appropriately," as if this was some children's game or a royal line of succession.

For the past decade, Sawyer waited, relegated to doing grin and chat on the interminable sofa that is "Good Morning America," obscuring years of solid reporting and investigative bona fides. Sawyer covered the State Department, interviewed world leaders and was the first female correspondent on "60 Minutes," the rare network effort that breaks information instead of coasting on the work of newspapers.

At the network news divisions, being assigned to dawn patrol isn't punishment. "Good Morning America" has almost half the audience of the evening newscast but, at two hours in length, earns far more money while attracting a stronger percentage of viewers ages 25-54, whom advertisers crave.

The evening news -- even the name evokes twilight -- is an ossified relic in the Internet age. Viewers crave information, yet the program is stalled at 30 minutes of largely rehashed info and fluff. "Dancing With the Stars" commands an entire hour, while the world's news is stuffed into half that time, the same length it's been since 1963.

The nightly newscast is also the Metamucil half-hour, as the pharma ads reflect. The three newscasts collectively attract 20 million viewers, half the size of the audience 15 years ago, with a median age of 61.3, hence all the health coverage.

Claiming Sawyer's appointment "historic," as many have, is misleading. It's a job many men, including Gibson, no longer want. The ABC show has long been stuck behind NBC's "Nightly News." The network's true mission appears to be dominating in the ratings, not improving coverage.

When Walter Cronkite passed away this summer, the obituaries were as much about the death of the evening newscast as they were of the venerable broadcaster.

If the ratings continue to drop, as trends indicate, Sawyer will be blamed -- as Couric has been for CBS' continual third-place showing.

So perhaps it's not surprising that Sawyer's first response to the anchor job was, as The Washington Post reported, "Can't we talk Charlie into staying?"

Reading the teleprompter, dashing to floods, fighting in a perpetual anchor death-match and being blamed for stalled ratings doesn't seem like a dream job or a watershed moment for women.

How to fix it? Investigations, foreign reports (once ABC's strength), interviews with leaders Sawyer can land with a phone call; cut the superficial health tips, double the show's length. Is any of that going to happen? No.

According to the Women's Media Center, launched in 2005 by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and others as an industry watchdog and advocacy group, "women hold only 3 percent of the 'clout' positions in media." It's not as if programs attracting younger viewers, even mock news shows, are doing any better. "The Daily Show" still has only one female correspondent.

Sawyer's appointment, though, is a watershed moment for one group: older Americans.

She will be 64 when she finally assumes the chair in January, mirroring the demographics of her aging audience. As it happens, that's exactly the age Cronkite was when, due to his network's then-retirement policy, he stepped down after anchoring for 19 years.