At ABC News After Westin, Risk and Opportunity

David Westin’s resignation as president of ABC News represents, in the words of one long-time television news executive, “an inflection point” for an industry still trying to figure out how to survive.

David Westin
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David Westin

Andrew Heyward, a former president of news at CBS, said on Tuesday that whoever succeeded Mr. Westin at ABC News had “a real opportunity to not be beholden to the traditions of television news,” but instead to seek ways “to create value through aggressive innovation.”

The company could move in many different directions, Mr. Heyward and several other analysts said. ABC could merge its news operations with a cable television channel like one that Bloomberg L.P. owns, for example. Or it could take a more experimental approach based on the notion that the broadcast model for news was dead and needed to be reinvented as something radically different, like video file sharing among Facebook-style friends.

Or, Mr. Heyward said, ABC could embark on an even harsher regime of corporate-ordered cost cuts. Mr. Westin oversaw a 25 percent reduction of ABC’s news staff this year, and some employees fear that the company will move to shrink the division further in an effort to maintain profitability.

The thing to watch is who ABC appoints as Mr. Westin’s successor, Mr. Heyward said. (No names have yet emerged as serious contenders). Someone with formal corporate training, like a person from ABC’s stations division, would most likely forecast a decision to manage costs in the short term, he said. Someone with a digital background, like a former Google executive, could signal a radical and more long-term approach.

“I think you’ll either see someone from Harvard Business School or a Harvard dropout,” Mr. Heyward said.

Mr. Westin, who announced his resignation Monday night, spent almost 14 years running ABC News, a unit that achieved consistent, but relative, success. ABC News never really escaped its second-rank status behind NBC News, even as it never was in any real danger of falling to third place, occupied by CBS News.

That certainly could have been part of the problem. Andrew Lack, who once ran NBC News and is now chief executive of Bloomberg’s multimedia group, said he could imagine the marching orders to a new president of news beginning with a question: “If ‘Good Morning America’ is No. 2, why isn’t it No. 1?’ ”

NBC News is dominant in ratings and cash flow, and “if you’re No. 1 you are still going to make money,” Mr. Lack said.

He and others say NBC has an advantage in owning a cable news channel, MSNBC, which not only adds revenue and helps spread costs but also serves as a training ground for new talent.

The news divisions of ABC and CBS do not have a cable channel to fall back on, which is why stories continue to circulate about possible mergers with CNN or Bloomberg.

Mr. Lack said Bloomberg had explored a merger with Mr. Westin. “We looked for a partnership,” he said, adding that “the conversations didn’t go anywhere. But particularly with David, I felt we had substantial interest in getting together.”

Many executives inside and outside the network news divisions of ABC and CBS have said that mergers offer the only path to survival, but no deals have emerged. The stated reasons have been tied to problems related to union employees and management conflicts. But some analysts have suggested that the networks simply fear that they may lose their identities by getting involved with cable.

Andrew Tyndall, who publishes The Tyndall Report, which follows the network newscasts, said that situation might change if ABC’s parent company, Walt Disney , followed the pattern it established in sports.

ABC Sports was once the dominant TV unit. “But Disney moved it all over to cable, and made ESPN into the most powerful channel on cable,” he said. “Maybe Disney will see a way to do the same thing with news.”

Mr. Tyndall argued for a radical approach to changing network newscasts, assuming that ABC and others decided to stay in broadcasting at all. If they do, he said, they could not abandon their news operations. Part of a network’s obligation to its affiliated stations is to provide news.

The broadcasting element has diminishing relevance, Mr. Tyndall said, adding that what will continue to be valuable is high-quality news video.

“The video is not going to be distributed by stations,” he said. “It’s going to be done by the audience, sharing it and embedding it and virally communicating it and putting it on Facebook. The new network is not a broadcast network; it’s a social network.”

Robert J. Thompson, professor of television at Syracuse University, said all the predictions about shrinking network news operations sounded no different from forecasts about the demise of network soap operas.

“And that’s scary. This isn’t soap operas, this is serious business, especially when you look at what’s happening in the newspaper industry,” he said.

“I’m very alarmed when I see these institutions that we depend upon for coverage of things like the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, institutions that totally changed the way things happened in this country, being run by people who seem to be in this state of total uncertainty about what to do,” he added.