NEW YORK - Executives at ABC and CBS News can be relieved this week that, unlike with Hurricane Katrina, their Rita coverage didn't appear seriously affected by voids at the chief anchor position left by the late Peter Jennings and Dan Rather.
It's been more than five months since both men last anchored the evening news. ABC is conducting its search for a successor very privately. CBS has struggled, although it gave itself the bigger challenge.
NBC's ratings spiked high in the wake of Katrina and the very visible work of its anchorman, Brian Williams. Even though its anchor decision hasn't been made, ABC moved aggressively to make sure its biggest names were on the scene with Rita: Charles Gibson and Bob Woodruff both reported from Texas, and Diane Sawyer spent a rare Saturday co-anchoring "Good Morning America."
ABC News President David Westin is the key man in the process, and he will likely decide Jennings' replacement on "World News Tonight" in consultation with parent Walt Disney Co. chief Robert Iger, a former ABC executive, and ABC network chief Anne Sweeney.
ABC News executives wouldn't speak about the process, a spokesman said.
Industry experts consider it virtually certain someone now at ABC News will get the job. Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas have largely traded off as substitutes since Jennings left the air, with Gibson most frequently anchoring special news reports.
Westin's toughest decision may be whether ABC can afford to lose Gibson on "Good Morning America," which is closer to NBC's "Today" in the ratings than it has been in a decade. Evening news anchor has long been considered the prestige position, but morning shows are where news divisions make the most money.
During Katrina's aftermath, a handful of "World News Tonight" broadcasts featured a team of Vargas and Woodruff anchoring from different locations - raising at least the possibility that ABC could be considering replacing Jennings with more than one person. On Monday, ABC had a split anchor team of Vargas in a New York studio and Woodruff on location in Texas.
Since "World News Tonight" runs a strong second to NBC in the ratings, even winning among a key younger demographic group, there's a less pressing need for changes in the broadcast's format.
Chances are ABC will have its successor in place before CBS News, which has been searching since at least November when Rather announced he was stepping down. Bob Schieffer has been interim anchor since March.
The ultimate arbiter is CBS chief Leslie Moonves. He directed CBS News President Andrew Heyward to give him suggestions, a prototype was filmed and the news division even asked its interns if they had any ideas.
The CBS prototype reportedly included a fast-paced news summary and longer, newsmagazinelike pieces introduced by individual correspondents. But Moonves wasn't satisfied.
"We are trying to change it, make it more user-friendly," he said in an investors conference call held by Merrill Lynch earlier this month. "Obviously, to skew it a bit younger. It is something that we are concentrating on, we are putting a lot of effort. We haven't come up with a great solution, so we have sent them back to the drawing board. But you will see changes coming in the next few months."
Heyward said CBS News will do more test films and present Moonves with other ideas soon.
The "CBS Evening News" runs a distant third in the ratings, and the gap is widening. That gives CBS a particular impetus to try something new.
"When you take a genre that is this entrenched and become the worldwide standard for how a news program is done and you start looking at alternative ways to do it, it's a challenging process," Heyward told The Associated Press. "You have a core audience that is used to things a certain way that you don't want to alienate, but you also want to attract a new audience. We're trying to balance those two things."