“World News Tonight” Fails to Implode, Critics Disappointed

Media watchers ponder whether "kiddos" Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff have the requisite "gravitas" to carry ABC's flagship newscast, which they began hosting Tuesday.

“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.”

(Vargas, it’s worth pointing out, also has “chops.” Similar chops to Woodruff — longer chops, even. She was anchoring local news in Phoenix in the mid-80s back when Woodruff was still working his pre-journalism job as a lawyer. Both have reported from around the world. Both joined ABC in 1996. And both have experience anchoring “World News Tonight.” So why is it that the familiarly authoritative voice opening ABC’s new broadcast announces that “This is ‘World News Tonight’ with Bob Woodruff [slight pause] and Elizabeth Vargas,” when the alphabet — if not experience — would dictate that Vargas be named first? But we digress … so far, in fact, that we were able to watch both the second and third nights of the broadcast and note that on night three, the voice actually announced Vargas before Woodruff, indicating, perhaps, a two-nights-Woodruff-first, one-night-Vargas-first pattern.) Of ABC’s decision to go the double-anchor route, critic Weiss concludes that “rather than taking a risk and just anointing someone, the network has tried to please everyone.” Weiss, for one, was hardly pleased.

Slightly more pleased was David Bianculli, the (New York) Daily News’ TV critic who proclaimed: “All in all, a solid start … There were no first-night mistakes, no opening-day jitters.” (No fist fights, either.) Bianculli awarded the broadcast 3 stars (presumably out of 4).

Less generous was the Chicago Sun Times’ Doug Elfman who gave the show a “2 out of 4” rating (same as he recently gave “That ’70s Show”) and who assumed a who really cares about network news anymore anyway posture throughout his review. Like CJR Daily, Elfman was amused by the way Vargas teased Woodruff’s segment on young Iranian go-cart aficionados (“The girls have a message for the mullahs: Just try and stop us!”). Unlike CJR Daily, Elfman found objectionable what he called Woodruff’s “seesaw about how Iranians are politically threatening to the United States/wait, they’re regular people just like us/no wait, they’re really scary,” apparently bothered by the inclusion in a single broadcast of a report on the nuclear ambitions of Iran’s leaders, a second report on the pastimes of Iranian young people, and a tease for a report Wednesday night on Iran’s president who, Woodruff noted, “some people believe could be very dangerous.”

Luckily, the “kiddos” had had their skins thickened prior to their Tuesday debut, having been Dowd-ed and Brown-ed back in early December when the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd reduced Woodruff to “a pretty-boy android” and wondered “Will America ever trust a petite, pretty woman in jewel tones?” while the Washington Post’s Tina Brown wrote that Vargas and Woodruff “look as if they were spawned in the same electronic petri dish,” and proclaimed Vargas “hot” and Woodruff “as clean-cut and wrinkle-free as a Pixar animation.”

But back to an issue that the Sun Times’ Elfman raised: Did the Vargas/Woodruff debut matter at all to regular people, or just us media watchers? A quick look at ABC’s message boards — the network is pushing their Internet content, after all — indicates that some regular people (at least, “World News Tonight” viewers who are Web-savvy, which are the ones ABC cares most about) did indeed notice and do indeed care. There was much pining on the boards for Charles Gibson, and one viewer predicted that “Vargars [sic] and Woodruff will go down like Chung and Rather.”

After spending some time reading “World News Tonight“‘s message boards, we found ourselves browsing some of the site’s other offerings, just like ABC’s executives hope that visitors will do (if it were 1999, we might even proclaim the Web site “sticky”). We watched the Webcasts (very similar in content to the evening newscast — plus Chris Cuomo!) and spent some time reading The World Newser, “World News Tonight“‘s blog (sample post from Woodruff: “I met my first Iranian Grand Ayatollah today and I have to say I was impressed.”)

All in all, we’d say it’s true that “World News Tonight” has “significantly increased its presence on ABCNews.com with distinct content programmed specifically for the Internet audience,” to quote an ABC press release. And yet it wasn’t until nearly 48 hours after Vargas and Woodruff debuted that ABC got around to updating the duo’s online bios. Indeed, until Thursday afternoon, any members of the much-wooed “Internet audience” looking for Vargas’ bio would not have found it anywhere on the list of “World News Tonight” employees.

Sometimes, the future just takes a little bit longer to arrive.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.