World News, live from U.S.A.

ABC relaunches its news program with new co-anchors, but same look of a traditional network broadcast.

Published January 4, 2006

ABC was ready to bring viewers the world Tuesday as it unveiled a revamped World News Tonight. And then the news happened right at home.

Never mind that new co-anchor Bob Woodruff was reporting live from Iran. The real stories were the trapped coal miners in West Virginia, a Washington scandal involving lobbyist Jack Abramoff and brush fires in Texas.

That's how it happens sometimes, and it just happened to make ABC's move to two anchors - part of the second-ranked network evening news show's pitch to woo more and younger viewers - look pretty smart. If the network is determined to send an anchor around the globe, it's nice to have another back home just in case.

Instead of Woodruff, 44, trying to anchor domestic stories from Tehran as the new anchor team debuted, co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, 43, took the helm from New York (still leaving lots of time for Woodruff's less-than-urgent dispatches).

Despite the talk of appealing to younger viewers, the relaunched World News Tonight looked like a traditional network broadcast. Vargas delivered the show's introduction standing behind a clear, acrylic lectern, but by the end of the show, she was seated behind a desk as newscasters have done for decades.

There was nothing to radically distinguish the broadcast - for better or worse - from any other.

The focus on Iran was a nod to the late ABC anchor Peter Jennings' reputation for global perspective, but on a day when the news was on the home front, the segments on Iran seemed forced.

After leading with the miners and Abramoff - as did rivals CBS and NBC - ABC moved to Woodruff's report in Iran.

Woodruff declared Iran's renewed insistence Tuesday on refining nuclear material to be "big news," but neither No. 1-rated NBC nor No. 3-ranked CBS mentioned it, opting instead to cover the Texas fires that World News Tonight skipped. After a focus on domestic issues, including credit card debt and homeland security, Woodruff was back for the closing segment, declaring many Iranians to be much like Americans and interviewing bored Iranian teenagers who would rather race motorized carts than hate the United States.

For a first night, the overhauled newscast ran smoothly. But with Woodruff and Vargas on different continents, there was no chemistry between them or any indication they shared anchor duties. Promoting his next report from Iran, Woodruff signed off telling viewers, "I'll be here again tomorrow night to explore the mystery of the (new Iranian) president, who some people believe could be very dangerous. Elizabeth?"

Vargas, who might as well have been talking to any reporter, not her highly touted partner, replied into the camera:

"All right, a controversial president indeed. We'll see you tomorrow night, Bob. And that's our report. . . . For all of our team around the world, have a good evening and good night."

ABC on Tuesday also launched World News Now, a 15-minute Internet-delivered program that looked identical to a televised newscast. On a broadband connection, the Webcast played seamlessly with clear pictures and sound and without commercials. After the live 3 p.m. delivery, the program was available as promised by 4 p.m. for on-demand viewing.

ABC's relaunched newscast comes as networks look for new ways to reach audiences. Networks have added Web logs, streamed video on demand via the Internet and mulled new ways to attract viewers.

About 27-million still tune in to network news each night, but those numbers have dropped 59 percent in the past 30 years, and the average viewer is 60 years old, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

ABC's viewership slipped in the past year in which Jennings announced he had lung cancer and left the air. He died Aug. 7. At the end of 2004, World News Tonight was ranked second in network evening news, behind NBC by 600,000 viewers and ahead of CBS by 2.3-million. In the most recent numbers available from Nielsen Media Research from last month, ABC was still second, but NBC's lead, under Brian Williams, 46, was 1.1-million, and CBS, under interim anchor Bob Schieffer, 68,had halved the gap with ABC to 900,000.

Chase Squires can be reached at 727 893-8739 or squires@sptimes.com His blog is www.sptimes.com/blogs/tv