The rarefied club of network evening news anchors will soon have an unprecedented majority: women.
As announced by ABC News Wednesday, "Good Morning America" anchor Diane Sawyer will succeed Charles Gibson, who is retiring from his post as anchor of "World News."
Sawyer's move to the "World News" desk in January will come more than two years after former NBC "Today Show" anchor Katie Couric took the helm at "CBS Evening News," succeeding Bob Schieffer.
Critics say the new female majority represents a great step forward in an industry and a media culture known for its boys club mentality. Women who managed to break the glass ceiling in television news decades ago were relegated to "soft" news stories on recipes and social events. As recently as 2007, when Couric was tapped for the CBS post, questions persisted about whether a woman could carry a major evening broadcast by herself.
"Historically, it's been a male-dominated world and women were judged much more on their looks and their age and their so-called lack of authority," said Ken Auletta, a media critic for New Yorker magazine.
"Katie and Diane and people like Leslie Stahl on "60 Minutes" -- these are all serious folks," he said. "The hope is you get to a world where it's not just pundits and not just the executives above them but also the viewers come to judge male or female [anchors] based on the job they do rather than their sex."
The first two women to lead network evening news broadcasts were teamed with men and the arrangements were short-lived: In 1976, ABC's Barbara Walters joined Harry Reasoner behind the desk for the network's broadcast and stayed there for two years. Her tenure was marked by open hostility from Reasoner and others at the broadcast, Walters would later say.
It took more than a decade-and-a-half for a woman to return to a network news anchor position -- in 1993, Connie Chung shared anchoring duties with CBS's Dan Rather. She, too, held the post for two years.
In 2005, Elizabeth Vargas became the first woman since Chung to anchor an evening newscast in the United States when she co-anchored "World News" for a spell with Bob Woodruff after Peter Jennings' death.
"What is so gratifying is that these women are holding their jobs by themselves," Chung said of Sawyer and Couric. "They don't have to share the seat with a man to convey credibility or to assure those who lived in the dinosaur years and continue to live among dinosaurs that we women can carry the ball solo."
Sawyer Brings Name Recognition
Matthew Kerbel, the author of "If It Bleeds, It Leads: An Anatomy of Television News," said the attraction that Sawyer holds for the "World News" audience may have little to do with gender. Anchors who develop loyal viewership have done so by establishing trust, over time, with their viewers, he said. But with so many different outlets -- from cable news to news Web sites -- crowding the contemporary news landscape, it has become harder for television news stars to establish followings.
With Sawyer, a veteran of several news programs, including the news magazine "Primetime," as well as "Good Morning America," "you've got somebody with tremendous name recognition who has been around for a very long time," he said.
Sawyer, 63, has a "built-in trust" with the older viewers who increasingly make up television news audiences, Kerbel said.
What remains to be seen is whether viewers will trust Sawyer enough to maintain or raise "World News" ratings. After Couric succeeded Schieffer, ratings for "CBS Evening News" dropped and have yet to recover completely. Brian Williams anchors NBC's evening news show.
The ratings issue notwithstanding, Auletta said Couric got a second wind last year with a "powerful" interview of then-vice presidential candidate and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
It gave "people a sense of 'maybe I should take another look at her,'" Auletta said.
Jennifer Pozner, the executive director of Women In Media & News, said that women still have battles ahead of them in the fight for equality in TV news.
Top news executives, she said, are still, by and large, men, while "looking like a starlet is often an unwritten resume requirement for women who want to work in broadcast news."