After five years in the World News anchor chair, Diane Sawyer will step down at the end of the summer, clearing the way for David Muir, who anchors the program’s weekend edition, to assume her role on Sept. 2.
Sawyer, 68, an ABC News star who previously anchored Good Morning America and newsmagazine Primetime and who has conducted some of the news division’s most-watched interviews, will head her own unit and continue to produce and anchor specials.
Additionally, George Stephanopoulos, once thought to be in line to take over World News, becomes chief anchor at ABC News. He’ll continue to co-anchor GMA and also become the primary anchor for breaking news reports as well as election coverage. Stephanopoulos, 53, quietly extended his contract with ABC News last April, months ahead of when his previous deal was set to expire. With Sawyer’s impending exit, Stephanopoulos — who has forged a reputation as a tough-but-fair interviewer and insightful journalist in the decades since leaving the Clinton White House — becomes even more important to ABC News. And Stephanopoulos’ recently signed deal keeps him at ABC News well beyond the 2016 presidential election. He’ll also continue to anchor ABC’s Sunday public affairs program, This Week.
Sawyer, former ABC News head Ben Sherwood and new ABC News president James Goldston began talking about the World News anchor change several months ago. (Sherwood is set to take over for Disney-ABC chief Anne Sweeney in February.) And it looks as if Sawyer will go out on a high note. World News has lately bested perennial leader NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams among viewers 25-54, the demographic upon which most TV news is sold to advertisers. World News won the May sweeps ratings period in the demo for the first time in more than six years and has picked off a handful of weeks subsequently. However, Nightly is still leading World News in the demo for the season and is posting its largest total viewer audience since the 2005-06 season.
In a note to ABC News staff on Wednesday morning, Goldston stressed that Sawyer will “for many years to come … be a driving force at ABC News with her exceptional storytelling genius. She will create innovative television specials and events, and, of course, continue to conduct the biggest interviews with the most important and extraordinary people in the world.”
Sawyer, who is married to Hollywood director Mike Nichols, has for many years wielded considerable power at ABC News thanks to her unyielding work ethic and talent for landing — and gently interrogating — the most sought-after newsmakers of the day. Lately, there had been whispered speculation in the industry about when she would step away from the anchor chair, a job she was known to aspire to even as it was given to her rival and GMA co-anchor Charlie Gibson in 2006. But there was little doubt that the announcement would be orchestrated with grace and no hint of consternation. And indeed Sawyer has lately been grooming Muir, 40, as her heir apparent.
“As much as she loved leading World News to new heights — with so much important, brilliant and impactful reporting and a number one finish in the May sweep — Diane decided that now is the moment to concentrate full time on tackling big issues in new ways,” Goldston continued in his note.
In his own email to ABC News staff, Sherwood noted that “Diane, George and David have each engaged me and James in imagining and charting their respective paths. We are delighted that these new positions reflect our discussions as well as their individual passions, ideals, talents and goals.”
He acknowledged Sawyer “in particular for leading our division to great heights, especially and most recently at World News” and “salute(d) George and David, consummate and complementary pros who will — as always — make ABC News shine on the biggest, most important stories around the clock and around the world.”
He also mentioned GMA co-anchor Robin Roberts, characterizing her as “incomparable” and “the heart and soul of our organization.” Sherwood, who’s known to send inspirational Haiku-like emails to staff, signed his note with the salutations “KIG” and “PYG,” acronyms for “keep it going” and “play your game.”
Of course, the announcement comes in the wake of the retirement — or semi-retirement — of ABC News veteran and one-time Sawyer rival Barbara Walters, who officially retired in May but has continued to appear on the network in the weeks since.