What David Westin’s ABC Departure says about the Future of TV News

By Gail Shister 

In the wake of David Westin’s announcement this week that he’s stepping down after 13 years as president of ABC News, networks should initiate informal five-year term limits on news division chiefs.

So says Andrew Heyward, (left) president of CBS News from 1996 to 2005.

“If the media continues to evolve and change at anything like the pace it has, you need a regular infusion of new ideas and new leadership,” says Heyward, a media consultant whose clients have included NBC News.

“These are very demanding jobs,” he says. “They’ve become incredibly complex in the last 10 years. The pressures have been building since the ’80s. They aren’t the statesmanlike positions they were when network news was invented.”

In Heyward’s view, the perfect candidate for ABC “would balance reverence for what is … valuable about network news with a willingness to consider pretty radical change. That’s more likely to happen with somebody who hasn’t been there for a decade or so.”

By Heyward’s yardstick, NBC’s Steve Capus and CBS’s Sean McManus would both be lame ducks. And the late, great Roone Arledge, who ruled ABC from 1977 to ’98, would have exploded the metric.

Lone exception to Heyward’s rule: Fox News top gun Roger Ailes, whom he says will remain in office “for at least 100 years.” (FYI: Heyward says he has never consulted for Fox.)

While some experts say Westin’s departure signals Disney intention to get out of the network-TV business, others insist it’s too early to tell.

“It’s not necessarily a sea change, but the world of mass-media journalism is changing so rapidly, people [including the media] are desperate to explain what the changes mean,” says network-news analyst Andrew Tyndall.

Thus far, according to Tyndall, “This is a trend piece masquerading as a news story.”

While Heyward says he takes Westin at his word that the decision was his own, Tyndall speculates he was asked to resign. “If he wanted to leave as a point of principle, he would have done it before he cut 25 percent of the staff [in February], not after,” says Tyndall.

Marc Berman, senior analyst for Mediaweek, sees no mystery in the tea leaves. Westin’s move “doesn’t signal anything except it was time for a change. Disney has so much at stake in the TV business, I don’t think they want to just pick up and walk away.”

For ABC News to survive, it has two options, Tyndall says — Make even further cuts or, as rumored, merge with Bloomberg in order to gain a desperately-needed cable presence.

Tyndall would like to see the two join forces, with Andy Lack, (left) CEO of Bloomberg’s Multimedia Group and former NBC News boss, running the new enterprise.

Heyward disagrees on both counts. ABC-Bloomberg “doesn’t seem as logical as other alliances that have been speculated. Bloomberg seems to have a strong financial focus.” As for Lack, “I’d be surprised if he were terribly intrigued by this.”

Robert Thompson, head of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, says “media marriages” — whether ABC-Bloomberg or CBS-CNN — are inevitable because of economic pressures. News divisions no longer have the luxury of being loss leaders.

Meanwhile, the concept of “radical change” is intriguing to Heyward, and could manifest itself in numerous ways.

One possible scenario: A network could drop its evening newscast, abdicating day-to-day news coverage to the digital world. With a smaller — and less well-paid — staff, the news division would focus on producing specialized, magazine-style, original content, to be syndicated across a broad range of platforms.

What about stars? “TV without personalities doesn’t make a ton of sense,” Heyward acknowledges. “Then it’s just video.”

“The few unique characters that really give you a distinctive brand will still command a premium, but you’re not going to have newscast producers” making huge salaries anymore.