Published December 03, 2010
NEW YORK – ABC has selected Ben Sherwood, a former producer of "Good Morning America" who left to write novels and start a website, as its news division president.
He replaces David Westin, who announced earlier in the fall that he would be stepping down after 14 years.
Sherwood takes over a news division where personnel transitions have left some broadcasts losing ground in the ratings to the market leader, NBC News. Diane Sawyer replaced Charles Gibson at "World News," George Stephanopoulos moved from Washington to fill Sawyer's slot on "Good Morning America" and Christiane Amanpour was hired from CNN to anchor "This Week" on Sunday morning.
Sherwood worked closely in the past with Sawyer, now ABC's top news anchor. He joined the network as a producer at "Primetime Live" in 1989 when she was there and was the behind-the-scenes boss at the morning show in the early 2000s when Sawyer was co-anchor with Charles Gibson.
Like many news organizations, ABC News has cut staff in recent years to save money. It currently turns a profit, but Sherwood faces the challenge of maintaining that in a rapidly changing news world.
"Ben's experience with hard news was especially attractive to me," said Anne Sweeney, his boss and president of the Disney/ABC Television Group. "He knows this organization and is about to be reacquainted with a version of this organization that he hasn't seen."
Besides his work as a journalist, Sherwood is an author who wrote the novel "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud" and is a founder of a website for people surviving in the face of adversity.
"This is a job that needs someone who can think untraditionally about traditional problems, and Ben is the kind of guy who can do it," said Richard Wald, a Columbia University journalism professor and a top executive at ABC News when Sherwood worked there.
Between two stints at ABC News, Sherwood also worked at NBC's "Nightly News." He left ABC News in 2006.
Sherwood, in an interview, praised Westin for preparing the organization for the future and expressed support for the reconstituted programs.
Since Sawyer has taken over at "World News," the NBC "Nightly News" advantage over ABC has increased by 14 percent, the Nielsen Co. said. The edge by NBC's "Today" show over "GMA" has gone up 23 percent, and the gap between NBC's "Meet the Press" and Amanpour's "This Week" has widened by 32 percent, Nielsen said.
"I'm extremely confident we are going to make real progress with all of these shows," Sherwood said. "There are opportunities at each of these shows to boost the competitive metabolism even higher than it is right now."
Meanwhile, "Nightline," often the ratings leader in its late-night slot, is the ABC newscast seeing the most success right now.
Sweeney said there is nothing on the immediate horizon regarding a more extensive working relationship between ABC News and Bloomberg. The two news organizations held talks about some ways to combine forces before the election this fall, but there were no agreements, she said.
"They are a very important business brand, with a strong team," she said. "Hopefully we will figure out ways to work with them and others in the future."
Sweeney said it was important that all her division leaders show an entrepreneurial spirit of the type Sherwood did in starting his own website.
"That's what they bring to the company: the ability to see beyond where we are today and envision how much bigger and greater and relevant we can be to our consumers tomorrow," she said.
Sherwood starts his new job on Monday.