Charlie Gibson leaves ABC News today as the last old school network TV anchorman
The year was 1998, and he was leaving the co-anchor slot at Good Morning America to make room for a new team of energetic youngsters the network had hired.
Back then, they telecast GMA from a windowless studio on the upper East Side of Manhattan, and we spent some time in his office after the show concluded (I also got to hang at the party after his last show, held at Tavern on the Green and featuring guests ranging from Barbara Walters to former GMA host Joan Lunden).
I remember then being amazed at how confident and unperturbed Gibson was at the turn of events, which was essentially an ouster. I thought perhaps he was just a good actor, but perhaps he knew something no one else did.
Because, ten years later, he's leaving ABC News today as its top anchor, after returning to save GMA with Diana Sawyer less than two years after he was first ousted. That seems to be Gibson's ultimate legacy inside ABC News; the man who saved the network news division from itself.
Not only did he rescue GMA from a disastrous anchor choice, he also saved the flagship evening newscast, World News, from problems after Peter Jennings' death. Co-anchors Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas were split up when a bomb blast injured Woodruff in Iraq. Vargas' slumping ratings made it easy to replace her with Gibson when she needed a maternity leave.
For a time, his traditional approach and familiarity with news viewers even gave ABC top ratings, though NBC's Brian Williams would eventually recover the network's dominance.
Gibson also leaves ABC as the last old school TV anchor. He's not very active online and takes his anchor role seriously. Despite a long history in morning television, he is not willing to pop up in comedy sketches the way NBC anchor and frustrated stand up comic Williams does for Jay Leno and The Daily Show. And he's not about to become a fixture in either tabloid news or the online world, in the way Katie Couric has managed.
When he took apart vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in a series of interviews, he could look a bit like a stern college professor -- John Houseman from Paper Chase, for anyone old enough to get the reference -- scowling over his reading glasses with a theatrical seriousness.
Which is why it was such a surprise when he and George Stephanopoulos, considered among the most serious network news anchors, spent almost the first hour of a two-hour Democratic debate last year grilling Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on gossipy questions like Obama's supposed ties to William Ayers, a onetime '60s-era protest radical.
Gibson's transition from World News has been determinedly low key. He's only talked to a couple of news outlets and the network is riding a fine line between celebrating his departure and avoiding overselling the transition. The approach has worked so far for GMA, which didn't see ratings loss after Sawyer's departure the previous Friday.
But Gibson's own career shows network TV is a long term game, where familiarity with viewers and an ability to echo their traditions may trump the latest, newest flavor. But with Sawyer headed to World News, Couric at CBS and Williams at NBC, the network news universe heads into a new chapter Monday -- with very few traditions left for a dwindling audience.