12.03.10

ABC's New Headliner

Ben Sherwood had left network news when the brass asked him to help find David Westin's replacement. Howard Kurtz on how the self-described "lowly book writer" got the gig himself.

He quit the network four years ago, moved to L.A., wrote a book, had another book turned into a movie, and generally seemed to have kissed off the breakneck Manhattan world of television news.

That’s why it was quite an eye-opener today when Ben Sherwood was named as ABC News president, succeeding David Westin at the helm of a battered news operation that has cut a quarter of its staff.

Two things worked in Sherwood’s favor. He stayed in touch over the years with Diane Sawyer, now the network anchor, despite tensions when they worked together during his stint as a Good Morning America producer. And it didn’t hurt to be in Los Angeles, the home base of parent company Disney and Anne Sweeney, president of the ABC Television Group, who made the decision.

“I was out of the network news game,” Sherwood says in an interview. “My name surfaced on Anne Sweeney’s list as a friend of the court”—that is, someone to offer her advice about the search. “I initially told her I was not a candidate.”

But as Sweeney talked about her “vision” for improving ABC News, Sherwood says, he changed his mind and asked to be considered. That was a month ago. “We got together and kept talking.”

Sherwood laughed off my suggestion that he was like Dick Cheney, who originally led George W. Bush’s vice-presidential search. “I was just a lowly book writer working on a book and a scrappy entrepreneur trying to start a website,” he says.

Not that lowly, actually. Sherwood’s 2009 book, The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life, became a New York Times best-seller. In July, Universal Pictures released Charlie St. Cloud, starring Zac Efron, based on an earlier Sherwood novel.

James Goldston, executive producer of Nightline, and Jon Banner, executive producer of World News, had also been considered candidates for the top job.

Sherwood stayed in touch with key ABC journalists, and returned to New York to bid farewell when Charlie Gibson, another GMA alumnus, stepped down as anchor.

Insiders say Sherwood’s perfectionist style caused tensions during his stint at GMA and that Sawyer helped ease him out as executive producer. But as an astute practitioner of office politics, he stayed in touch, though Sherwood says he didn’t lobby Sawyer about his candidacy. “Diane and I have been in regular communication since I left,” he says. “It’s an important relationship. We trade ideas all the time.”

In fact, Sawyer interviewed Sherwood about the Charlie film, asking him: “Take us through the process for every fantasist out there who wishes they were you.”

“You encounter all the bumps and nightmares along the way, including whether or not anyone’s going to publish it,” Sherwood said of the novel. He cracked Sawyer up by brandishing a photo of him embracing her—she is kicking up her leg—as a 19-year-old intern at CBS, where Sawyer was then co-hosting the morning show.

A Rhodes Scholar with a receding hairline, Sherwood is universally seen as smart. His selection was greeted with relief by a number of ABC staff members. But some current and former ABC staffers regard him as short on journalistic accomplishments. But that may be burying the lead, for unlike Westin, a company lawyer before he succeeded the legendary Roone Arledge, Sherwood is a lifelong journalist. There had been speculation and concern at ABC News that Sweeney might tap a corporate suit to bring costs under control.

Sherwood was vague about his outlook for the news division, whose morning and evening broadcasts are No. 2 in the ratings behind NBC. “David Westin faced some really tough choices and positioned ABC news for strength and growth in the future,” he says. “I would not be so presumptuous, 18 hours after being named, to speak knowledgably about the inside.” Sherwood adds, though, that he wants to “increase the competitive metabolism of this place even higher, and improve shows in ways that will make a difference for viewers.”

While detractors grumble about his ambition, friends tend to speak of him in superlatives. “Ben is one of the most imaginative and creative people I’ve ever known,” says Susan Mercandetti, Random House’s executive editor. “He thinks in ways most people don’t.”

Sherwood began his journalistic career with a series of internships in California, along with stints in Paris for the Los Angeles Times and Thailand for the U.N. border relief unit. He joined ABC in 1989 as a producer for Primetime Live, with, yes, Sawyer, and Sam Donaldson. He and his team came under sniper fire in Bosnia in 1992.

“David Westin faced some really tough choices and positioned ABC news for strength and growth in the future,” he says. “I would not be so presumptuous, 18 hours after being named, to speak knowledgably about the inside.”

Sherwood defected to NBC Nightly News in 1997, working with Tom Brokaw, and returned to ABC in 2004 as executive producer of GMA, where he oversaw coverage of the presidential election and Hurricane Katrina, among other stories. Despite the internal tensions, he helped close a huge ratings gap with the Today show but could never overtake the perennial morning leader. He quit abruptly later that year for what were described as personal reasons, which involved illness in his family. He would say only that he is now free to move his wife and two sons, 6 and five months, back to New York because “a number of those family reasons have gotten a lot better.” Sherwood had been working on turning the Survivors Club into a website, in partnership with Hearst’s digital unit, when Westin announced he was stepping down. Now he is back in New York for the toughest challenge of his career. “I love this place. I know this place,” Sherwood says. “Obviously it’s now a very different place. My first job is to start relearning the place. But I feel fortunate to have many relationships that go back many, many years.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.