- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 7, 2010

NEW YORK (AP) - ABC’s search for someone to preside over its news division comes as the Internet and cable television have made the job much different and more complex than what outgoing chief David Westin took over nearly 14 years ago.

ABC News employees returned from a holiday weekend to learn that Westin would step down at the end of the year. ABC’s parent company, The Walt Disney Co., needs to find an executive who treasures traditional news values yet can transform a division at a time people have many different ways to find news beyond broadcast television.

Making money wouldn’t hurt, either.

Westin inherited the job from TV legend Roone Arledge, who built a stable of stars at ABC News. Lately, the network has been forced by the business climate into retrenchment. ABC News has cut a quarter of its staff over the past few years.

There was a time when being an ABC, CBS or NBC news president was almost like being a Supreme Court justice: Their job was to uphold news standards and perform a public service, said Andrew Heyward, CBS News president for 10 years ending in 2005. Profitability wasn’t a big issue.

“They enjoyed a comfortable oligopoly,” Heyward said. “They competed against one another, but they certainly didn’t compete against the hundreds and hundreds of companies that have news operations now. You had a simpler competitive environment and a simpler mandate.”

The Web hadn’t matured as a news source when Westin started his job. Fox News Channel and MSNBC had just arrived, but weren’t closed to figuring out a way to compete effectively with CNN, as they have now with programs that appeal to partisan audiences.

In the past decade though, online news has exploded and cable TV has grown to take a dominant position in the living room.

Disney’s cable TV properties are growing and are providing healthy profit margins while ABC has stalled. The network had revenue of about $3.3 billion last year, with only $7 million left after costs, according to data from SNL Kagan. By contrast, Disney’s ESPN channel brought in $6.3 billion in revenue, or about $1.5 billion after costs.

Between cable and digital competition, and a collapse of the advertising market, Westin faced “a cascading series of difficulties coming down on everyone in the news business,” said Richard Wald, a Columbia University president and former ABC executive.

Although ABC has stayed a solid second behind NBC in the ratings for most newscasts, NBC has a huge financial advantage in being able to spread costs around to sister cable channel MSNBC. Neither ABC nor CBS has a comparable news channel on cable.

At 58, and with continued financial pressures and retrenchment in the future, Westin saw a good time to leave. He was not available to comment on Wednesday, a spokesman said. He’s planning to stay on until the end of the year to help with the transition.

His immediate bosses at ABC and at Disney, Anne Sweeney and Bob Iger, would be responsible for selecting a successor.

There would be no shortage of candidates from a traditional pipeline for news division presidents: Jon Banner has been the longtime executive producer of “World News”; Jim Murphy, “Good Morning America” executive producer, also led CBS‘ evening newscast; and Paul Slavin has run ABC News‘ digital operation.

Disney has sometimes tapped executives from other divisions within the same company. ABC Family President Paul Lee replaced Steve McPherson as entertainment chief for the ABC broadcast network, for example.

Given the challenges of having to transform the division and the multiple skills needed, Heyward predicted that Disney would not select someone currently at ABC News.

“These (news) organizations were built to fight a different war _ arguably yesterday’s war _ where gathering news, taping it, editing it and transmitting it were difficult,” Heyward said. “Now these things are easy. So the infrastructure has to change. The product has to change.”


AP Business Writer Andrew Vanacore contributed to this report.

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