David Westin on ABC Cuts: ‘This Doesn’t Have Anything to do with Seniority or How Much Anybody Gets Paid’

By Chris Ariens 

ABC News employees will soon be getting a letter in the mail asking them if they’d like to give up their jobs. It is part of a massive reorganization — the size of which has not been seen in news division president David Westin’s 13 years at the helm.

Some of the changes take effect tomorrow. “World News with Diane Sawyer” and “Good Morning America,” which had separate weekday and weekend staffs, will now be one. The EP of Weekend GMA, Andrew Morse will now report to the weekday senior EP, Jim Murphy. Same goes for the “World News” production staff.

But this is just the beginning.

In the end, 300 to 400 jobs at ABC News will be gone.

TVNewser spoke with Westin not long after the changes were announced:

TVNewser: 300-400 is the number we’ve been reporting. Is there a way to break it down by show or by bureau or by job?

Westin: I’m not confirming that number. But it’s really substantial, larger than anything, in terms of reduction in the 13 years since I’ve been here. We need to see who volunteers and reconfigure the programs from there. This will be all parts of the organization.

TVNewser: What is your expectation of the number who volunteer vs. the layoffs that might be coming?

Westin: I truly don’t know. I’ve only really been involved in this once before. We did one in 2000 and 2001. I truly appreciate the exemption [from ABC parent Disney] that allows people to have control over this.

TVNewser: You wrote in your memo that the transformation will take place between now and the end of the year. But do you have a target date for the buyouts/layoffs to be complete?

Westin: The [program] gives people 30 days to volunteer [from the time they receive their letter]. And we reserve the right to say “no.” We will be judicious especially with people who are too valuable. Then we’ll see involuntary reductions sometime after that. The expectation is sometime in the next 60-70 days.

TVNewser: What would you say to critics who charge this “transformation” is a convenient way to get rid of experienced employees and bring in younger, cheaper talent?

Westin: This doesn’t have anything to do with seniority or how much anybody gets paid. This has to do with doing our jobs in a better more efficient way; more flexible and nimble. And, yes, in a way that absolutely costs less. There will be less layers, less people touching a piece. I want to be clear on this, Chris: I’m not suggesting we’re going to flip a light switch and go 100% digital in the field. We’ll have a range, but it’ll be substantially different.

TVNewser: A year from now, ABC will look different from the inside. Will it look different to the viewers?

Westin: I don’t believe it will look dramatically different for the viewers. I use “Nightline” as an example and the digital production techniques they are using. I don’t think most of the audience will have any sense of that.

TVNewser: What was the pressure like from Disney to make this happen now?

Westin: You know, there are some forces of nature that are even stronger than Disney. These are the realities we face. We face competition from digital outlets. [We’ve seen] the growth of our digital business but it has not been as strong as the broadcast business. Three to four years ago we could not have done what we are doing today.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)