Slow, steady Gibson wins anchor race

Posted: July 15, 2007

NEW YORK - ABC correspondent Jake Tapper is seconds away from going live from Capitol Hill when anchor Charlie Gibson chimes into his earpiece.

Tapper, who just learned that his unborn first child is a girl, starts questioning himself. Is my story solid? Do I have enough sources? Should I tighten the lead?

Gibson has something else on his mind.

"Jacob," he says, "your life is about to become immeasurably more wonderful. And that little girl is going to own you for the rest of your life."

That bit of fatherly advice may be why Gibson - eight months shy of Social Security - has emerged as the most popular anchor in network news.

Avuncular sells.

CBS Evening News, with polarizing newbie Katie Couric, 50, is under house arrest in third place. Once-untouchable NBC Nightly News, anchored by edgy Brian Williams, 48, is bleeding viewers.

But ABC World News, with Charlie Gibson, a grandpa, is now a solid No. 1 in the Nielsen wars.

If there's one lesson to be learned from the recent tumult on the evening-news landscape, it's this: new and news don't necessarily work together for the over-60 crowd, the bulk of the evening news audience.

For all the networks' talk of reinventing the form, evening-news viewers are clearly more comfortable with traditional newscasts anchored by traditional types. (Translation: Non-threatening, older white men.)

Even Gibson's name brings to mind your favorite uncle.

Though ABC World News' announcer calls him Charles, the rest of the world knows him as Charlie. The only person who called him Charles, his brother, Lang, died in January 2006.

When Gibson broke into TV in 1970 at Washington's WJLA (then WMAL), he signed off as Charles because his mother "thought it gave me a stature that my age at the time [27] did not otherwise suggest."

These days, Gibson's stature is climbing the charts. With a bullet.

ABC World News has finished No. 1 for 11 consecutive weeks among total viewers, households and the target demographic of adults 25-54, according to Nielsen Media Research.

In the most recent figures (July 2-6), ABC had 7.48 million viewers - up 2 percent over the same period a year ago. NBC drew 6.84 million (down 5 percent) and CBS, 5.62 million (down 14 percent).

Nielsen data from the just-completed second quarter affirms ABC's startling turnaround. Gibson's newscast was up 7 percent over 2006; NBC was down 8 percent; and CBS, down 12 percent.

Even with his unqualified success, Gibson still can't believe he's got the job.

"It hasn't sunk in yet. At times, it's like an out-of-body experience, like watching somebody else live my life," says the former Good Morning America coanchor.

Hardly the ostentatious type, Gibson is in his office nibbling a stale ham-and-cheese sandwich from the ABC cafeteria. He washes it down with a Diet Snapple.

"It's hard for me to get used to the fact that there's greater deference paid to your opinion and judgment about news than what I'm used to. I was always the supplicant when I came to the program.

"I've been incredibly, incredibly fortunate. It's unbelievable. I'm doing the thing I love. I didn't expect to have this job. I did not think it was going to happen."

Neither did ABC.

When fortysomethings Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas were named in December 2005 as replacements for the late, great Peter Jennings, it was "game over" for Gibson. He set his retirement for June 22, 2007.

Fate had other plans. On Jan. 29, exactly 26 days after the tandem's debut, Woodruff was seriously injured in a bomb blast in Iraq. Then Vargas, unexpectedly pregnant, anchored her last World News May 26.

Three days later, Gibson, who joined ABC in 1965, was promoted to the post many felt should have been his the first time.

He's not flashy. He's not fall-down funny. He doesn't talk in sound bites and he doesn't pretend to listen. Unlike most TV types, Gibson would rather ask about your life than talk about his.

Did we say talk? A genial fellow, Gibson never met a conversation he didn't like, and it drives ABC publicists batty. Interviews scheduled for 15 minutes routinely run three times longer.

"He's the biggest yakker of all," says World News boss Jon Banner. "He'll talk to you forever. When 6:28 rolls around, I'll say, 'OK, time to go to the studio.' Sometimes it gets a little too close for comfort."

Gibson is also old school, to the max.

He doesn't carry a BlackBerry - ABC gave him one, but he couldn't figure out how to use it. He was ordered to carry a cell phone, but he still hasn't mastered the ringer. He's never flown in the Disney jet.

To Gibson, news "is a balance between what people want to know and what they need to know. You can't be completely impervious to what they want to know."

On the other hand, a little bit of celebrity goes a long way. "People need to understand that news isn't just Paris Hilton or Anna Nicole Smith or Rosie O'Donnell or Michael Jackson."

Gibson, a Princeton grad, was raised to stand when his parents entered the room and to call his father "sir" and to always, always wear a tie to work.

Jennings, a regular bold-face presence on Page Six, favored polo shirts and khakis, slipping into his elegant suits in late afternoon. Gibson won't even loosen his tie - "I think it makes you look drunk," he says.

"Peter was the James Bond of TV news. Charlie is Ward Cleaver," says correspondent Tapper, 38, who grew up in Merion and graduated from Akiba Hebrew Academy.

"The fatherly appeal he has is totally legitimate. I understand why viewers have affection for him, because it's how we feel. He's a modest, genuinely sweet man."

NBC's Williams says he hates losing to Gibson, "but it's impossible to hate Charlie."

"He's a thoroughly decent guy and a terrific competitor who has a quality I admire - he's the first to give credit to the team around him. It's always been Charlie's reflex."

How's this for reflex? When Gibson ascended from morning anchor to the face of ABC News, he didn't get a raise in his contract, which runs until early 2009. He didn't request one and one wasn't offered, he says.

"The money thing is just irrelevant," he insists.

Maybe, but Gibson is lowest paid of the Big 3 anchors. Couric makes an estimated $15 million a year; Williams more than $10 million. Gibson's salary is estimated at $8 million.

His wife, Arlene, longtime headmistress at a tony private girls school in New York, is retired. She serves on the board of her alma mater, Bryn Mawr College.

Gibson is in no hurry to retire; neither does he want to stay too long at the party. His departure "will be organic, I think.

"When you don't expect this job, which I didn't, and you're of an age when you know you're not going to go off and do some other career, it takes a tremendous amount of pressure off you."

Charlie Gibson, anchor at last.


A Volatile Year

The network evening-news terrain has shifted considerably since Charlie Gibson assumed ABC's anchor chair 14 months ago. (Numbers are the average number of viewers each night.)

Network   2005-06   2006-07   Percent   

   season   season   change   

ABC    8.444 million   8.664 million   +2.6%   

   Charlie Gibson         

CBS   7.555   7.157   -5.3%   

SOURCE: Nielsen Media Research


Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.

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