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TELEVISION REVIEW

On ABC, a quiet debut for dual anchors

Vargas, Woodruff begin without radical changes

No, it wasn't the aging, authoritative anchorman sitting behind a desk. Elizabeth Vargas was standing, at the start, in the studio in an oatmeal-colored blazer with a distractingly floppy collar. And Bob Woodruff gave the obligatory ''hello" from Tehran, from where he reported two stories.

There was nothing revolutionary about the new, dual-anchor ''ABC World News Tonight," which made its official debut last night. It was a ticker of the top news stories of the day: the West Virginia mine disaster, Iran's nuclear ambitions, the plea bargain of lobbyist Jack Abramoff (accompanied by some nice ''exclusive" video of Representative Tom DeLay in a flowered hat, hugging Abramoff in the South Pacific).

This was pretty much exactly what ABC had promised: same sort of newscast, just helmed by two people. And yet, that simple change might well be too much.

It has been a long time since a network tried two anchors -- the disastrous Connie Chung-Dan Rather experiment came and went in the mid-1990s. ABC insists this will be different. Vargas and Woodruff will share multimedia duties. They will co-write (or perhaps have ghostwritten) a blog and put on a live newscast for the West Coast. And they will take turns reporting from the field; at this point they're not even on the same continent, let alone in the same studio.

That's an expensive way to do a broadcast, a sign that ABC is committed to news -- or that parent-company Disney has money to burn. And it also eliminates any chance of developing the chemistry that has been the Holy Grail of local newscasts and network morning shows. And it raises the question of why ABC chose two anchors in the first place.

It seems ABC was building a newscast the way it might a political ticket, studying demographics, considering interest groups. Woodruff has chops, but a single, good-looking man in the chair might seem too old-school. Vargas has pizzazz, but maybe the newshounds would see her as soft. So rather than taking a risk and just anointing someone, the network has tried to please everyone.

Contrast that to CBS's feverish pursuit of Katie Couric, who's in demand not because she's a woman but because she's a known, beloved voice. ABC could have plucked a star (Charles Gibson was available). It could have picked a successor to Peter Jennings years ago, as NBC did with Brian Williams. Instead, the network seems to have a more-is-more approach; it replaced Ted Koppel with three people.

When it comes to network news, though, simple can be powerful. What built up Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather over the years was the comfort of seeing them in the same chairs, or presiding from the same international hotspots, or appearing at times of disaster, year in and year out. By picking everyone to anchor, ABC might assure that it's picking no one. And then -- given the many ways of getting news these days -- what reason would anyone have to watch?

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