“Good luck, kiddo.” So said Charles Gibson (the 62-year-old almost-anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight”) to 43-year-old Elizabeth Vargas (who, in the end, got Peter Jennings’ old gig — or half of it, at least) on the morning of her first day of her new job. Vargas and Bob Woodruff, 44, (who got the other half of Jennings’ job) appeared briefly on Gibson’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday to promote their debut newscast in an agonizingly contrived “interview” with Gibson and his GMA colleagues (“You have two, not one, but two new live-to-the-West-Coast broadcasts? How does that work?” and “‘World News Tonight’ is also going to become an Internet broadcast, I understand?”)
Even before ABC announced its new nightly news lineup in early December, media watchers wondered whether “kiddos” Vargas and Woodruff have the requisite “gravitas” to carry the newscast (i.e., retain aging viewers while simultaneously attracting younger ones). So all eyes — or at least the eyes of TV critics, competitors and CJR Daily — were on the youthful-for-network-news duo Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, having seen the pair in action for all of twenty-odd minutes, many of the watchers rendered their movie-review-like verdicts on Vargas, Woodruff and, in some cases, the Future Of Network News.
Overall, critics seemed almost surprised (or perhaps disappointed?) that nothing went too terribly wrong during the broadcast, and groped for something about which to be critical.
“There was nothing radically to distinguish the broadcast — for better or worse — from any other,” observed Chad Squires, TV columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, adding that “for a first night, the overhauled newscast ran smoothly.” Squires’ gripes? “On a day when the news was on the home front, the segments on Iran seemed forced” (CJR Daily concurs) and “with Woodruff and Vargas on different continents, there was no chemistry between them or any indication they shared anchor duties” (CJR Daily does not share this two-pronged gripe).
Newsday’s Verne Gay proclaimed the broadcast a “reasonable start,” deemed Woodruff “always good” and Vargas “fine, too,” adding that Vargas “smiled at the right times, and frowned at the right times, spoke clearly, and so on.” (Apparently the bar is rather low for she-anchors. For anyone who missed the broadcast and wonders: Woodruff, too, managed to avoid mumbling and sticking out his tongue on-camera). Gay opined about the “badge of gravitas” which news anchors must earn and concluded that “this new tag team stands a reasonable chance of earning theirs too some day.” No doubt Gay will bestow upon Vargas and Woodruff — or deny them — said badge in some future column.
Declared the Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik: “ABC took a solid first step into the future of TV news.” Zurawick noted that the broadcast and the much-ballyhooed Webcast were “sure-handed productions that skillfully navigated the currents of a fairly strong news day at home and abroad” and credited ABC for not “overplay[ing] the [Iran] story as many broadcasters do when an anchorman or anchorwoman is on location.” Finding “nothing spectacular about the broadcast,” Zurawik turned his critic’s eye to what he called “presentation” (in other words, what the chick wore) inviting readers to “give the network credit for having Vargas … dress in a modest, professional manner, rather than trying to glam her up with dramatic makeup, jewelry and leather the way female anchors on the cable channels and newsmagazines are often adorned.” (In case you’re wondering, Woodruff, too, was dressed “modestly” and “professionally,” unlike those flashily foppish men of cable.)
Also weighing in on Vargas’ “presentation” was the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss. Weiss, apparently bored by a broadcast that offered “nothing revolutionary,” was moved to mention in her lede Vargas’ “oatmeal-colored blazer with a distractingly floppy collar.” (TV critics are easily distracted; the offending collar escaped CJR Daily’s notice.) Weiss blasted ABC for “building a newscast the way it might a political ticket, studying demographics, considering interest groups,” observing that “Woodruff has chops, but a single, good-looking man in the chair might seem too old-school” and “Vargas has pizzazz, but maybe the newshounds would see her as soft.”