Diane Sawyer, one of the driving forces in network TV news for the past quarter-century, will step down from "World News" in September, ABC announced Wednesday.
Sawyer -- only the second solo female anchor for an evening newscast -- will be replaced by David Muir, "World News" weekend anchor.
In a statement, ABC News president James Goldston said, "At the end of last year Diane Sawyer started a conversation with Ben about one day stepping away from 'World News' and devoting her boundless energy full time to a team which will create and commission original reporting, big ideas and interviews for all platforms."
Indeed, Sawyer's departure from a broadcast that remains stubbornly in second place to NBC's "Nightly News with Brian Williams" is not expected to have much of an impact on the once-supreme, now-diminished institution of network evening news. But industry experts say the move does set up Sawyer and ABC to fill the void created by the retirement of Barbara Walters in May.
"It's Barbara [Walters], scene two," said Rick Kaplan, a former ABC News senior executive who produced "Primetime Live," Sawyer's first show for ABC after she joined the network from CBS in 1989. Walters, the first female anchor of an evening news program, left that role after a short, turbulent tenure, only to remake herself as TV's supreme interviewer and a major presence at ABC.
Separately, George Stephanopoulos was named "chief anchor" at ABC, something of a consolation prize, given that ABC couldn't replace him at "Good Morning America." That show is considered a vastly more important franchise at ABC because it is much more lucrative. He'll continue to handle major interviews, as he has already done for "This Week" and "GMA."
Sawyer, 68, couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday but by most accounts, the move -- long expected within ABC News circles -- has her blessing for personal reasons as well. Until recently, her husband, legendary director Mike Nichols, was ailing, and she has an elderly mother in Kentucky. ABC staffers close to her say she wants to spend more time with them.
"She's tired, and it's a tough job she's doing, but it remains to be seen whether David taking over will mean big changes, [although] I doubt it," said Paul Friedman, professional-in-residence at Quinnipiac University's School of Communications in Hamden, Connecticut, and longtime executive producer of "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings."
"The bigger picture here, as I said a few years ago , is that news programs have to carve out identities for themselves because of competition from cable and the Web. ABC approached this by going to softer news, which is certainly an option and one they've been fairly successful with."
Of the three major nightly news shows, "World News" is considered the frothiest, dominated many nights by news-you-can-use, or even celebrity pieces. "Nightly" continues to dominate both "World News" and "The CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley."NBC's program was seen by nearly 8 million viewers last week, or more than a million viewers more than "World News."