By MATEA GOLD
LOS ANGELES TIMES
NEW YORK -- When ABC's Peter Jennings was forced to leave the anchor chair in April to seek treatment for lung cancer, the already topsy-turvy world of network evening news seemed poised for more chaos.
Dan Rather had retired from the "CBS Evening News" a month earlier, replaced temporarily by Bob Schieffer. And NBC had just gone through its own transition, when Brian Williams succeeded Tom Brokaw in December.
The shift at ABC was more jarring. After announcing his diagnosis, Jennings immediately took a leave to begin chemotherapy. With no sense of when he will return, the network has relied on Charles Gibson and Elizabeth Vargas as substitutes on the anchor desk.
Despite the uncertainty caused by his illness, "World News Tonight" has held its own. The gap between the top-rated "NBC Nightly News" and the ABC broadcast has remained essentially the same -- an average of 224,000 viewers in June compared with 220,000 in March, according to Nielsen Media Research.
All the newscasts have lost viewers overall since last year, which network officials attribute to an expected drop-off after a presidential election year. But the dynamics of the evening-news competition remain largely unchanged.
NBC continues to lead in the season averages, with ABC a close second and CBS a more distant third.
In the last six weeks, "World News Tonight" actually won the largest share of younger viewers, ages 25 to 54, the key advertising demographic for news programs. (This year NBC has held the lead among these viewers overall.)
That ABC has remained strong has forced the network into a difficult balancing act: touting the competitiveness of a show that is missing its leading man.
"It's absolutely awkward for them," said New York-based analyst Andrew Tyndall, who monitors network news.
"Conventional wisdom would say that a leaderless newscast -- when people don't know who is going to be reading the news from one day to the next -- would be one that would be jeopardized," he said.
"The fact that the ratings have proved that isn't happening is a real lesson about why people watch -- for the news, not the anchor."
But ABC News officials maintain that the program's strength is due to Jennings' ongoing involvement. The anchor frequently participates in the 9 a.m. editorial conference call and weighs in with suggestions throughout the day, executive producer Jon Banner said.
"We're still putting on his broadcast," he said.
ABC has not been shy about touting its standing. Last month, the network ran a full-page ad in The New York Times on the occasion of its latest Edward R. Murrow Award and proclaimed the evening broadcast "America's Number One Network News." (Small print at the bottom of the page explained that the title referred to its recent lead in the key demographic.)
How it happened
Banner said he believes the show's ratings are the result of changes he and Jennings began making two years ago, when he first came aboard to produce "World News Tonight." Since then, they have put more emphasis on investigative pieces and stories about the nation's culture wars.
"Viewers don't respond to those changes overnight," he said. "I think it takes time to build up."
ABC News President David Westin also stressed Jennings' continual influence on the program, adding that he is counting on the anchor to return as soon as he is well enough. He would not comment on his prognosis, except to acknowledge the seriousness of his illness.
"He is an optimist," Westin said. "He has shown great strength and grace, but he's battling a very, very difficult disease."
There's no doubt Jennings' presence is still felt, even though he has been able to make only occasional visits to the newsroom.
Many ABC employees -- including Westin -- began wearing yellow "Live Strong" bracelets after his diagnosis. And the network was flooded with letters and e-mails from viewers offering support.
In late April, Jennings posted a letter on ABC's Web site.
"Thousands of you have spoiled me rotten with your attention in the last couple of weeks," he wrote. "Whether you have a cancer connection or not, your anecdotes, mementos, home recipes and general all-purpose guidance and concern have all been so deeply appreciated."
Jennings' forced absence came when he had hoped to be challenging NBC for its No. 1 ranking, a title it has held since the 1996-97 season. With Brokaw retiring, many analysts thought ABC had an opening to climb back on top this year.
But Williams maintained NBC's lead even before Jennings' departure.
"NBC Nightly News" has attracted the largest average audience every week since he took over the anchor desk Dec. 2. "Brian is doing a terrific job," said Steve Capus, senior vice president of NBC News. "I see us in a very strong competitive position when nearly every expert said we wouldn't be here."
He dismissed ABC's recent gains among 25- to 54-year-old viewers, noting that the newscasts have swapped the lead in that demographic for the last three years.
But Capus admitted to some discomfort about touting NBC's wins, considering the changed landscape. "All I've thought about in Peter's absence is that I wish him well," he said. "I feel the normal competitive games are secondary."
For his part, Williams had hoped to measure himself against Rather and Jennings, "the two lions" of the business.
"I would give anything for this current set of circumstances not to exist," he said.
The 46-year-old anchor said the most apt description of his situation came from a co-worker who, in an allusion to the changed New York skyline, reacted to Williams becoming the dean of network news: "That's a lot like calling the Empire State Building the tallest building in New York. It's for all the wrong reasons."