David Westin rocked the television news industry Monday night by stepping down as president of ABC News. He told staff in an email that it was the "right time" and plans to leave by the end of the year.
"Leading you has been a great privilege and a solemn responsibility — a responsibility that I tried to fulfill for over thirteen years by doing what I believed was best for this important news organization," Westin said. "I will root for your continued success long after I am gone."
Westin, who took over for the legendary Roone Arledge in 1997, has been especially busy over the past nine months. He's switched hosts or co-hosts on three signature ABC News programs — "World News" (Diane Sawyer), "Good Morning America" (George Stephanopoulos) and "This Week" (Christiane Amanpour) — while also making personnel moves on "Nightline" and "20/20."
It's still early, but those three changes haven't yet led to overtaking top-rated NBC News when it comes to the evening newscast ("NBC Nightly News"), morning show ("Today") or Sunday public affairs show ("Meet the Press").
Still, Westin had a more difficult task at hand this year than playing musical chairs around the various anchor desks: He was forced to cut nearly 25 percent of the news division in February. Westin spoke at the time of a "fundamental transformation" that resulted in around 400 staffers leaving the network's news operation. It's unclear, though, whether those painful cuts have done enough for ABC News' bottom line.
The New York Times' Bill Carter reports that "Disney and ABC managers had pressed Mr. Westin for years to make the division more profitable." And Carter hears from a "senior ABC News executive" that the network wanted the news division to triple its profit margin, to 15 percent.
Recent cuts have led to increased speculation that networks like ABC and CBS — which don't have a sister cable network — will eventually merge news divisions with outlets such as CNN or Bloomberg News. Broadcast network executives routinely play down the likelihood of such mergers, as Westin himself did to Broadcasting & Cable on Monday. "We talk with [Bloomberg] all the time," Westin said, "but it's not capital-T talks about some merger."
Westin's departure is bound to stir more rumors of an impending partnership. Also, high-profile network resignations inevitably raise the question of whether the departed executive in question jumped or was pushed.
In the staff email, Westin says that a month ago he told Bob Iger, president of ABC parent Walt Disney Co., and Anne Sweeney, president of Disney/ ABC Television Group, that he wanted to move on. And Sweeney, in a separate email, described Westin as "a tireless advocate for ABC News, effectively guiding the group through some of the most seismic industry, and divisional, changes imaginable."
Publicly, executives are on the same page. But the Daily Beast reports of long-running tension between Iger and Westin, and disappointment with the outgoing executive for not getting talks underway with a cable partner.
The network does not have a successor at this time.
Westin didn't announce what he plans to do next.
(Photo of Westin: AP/Mark Lennihan)