NEW YORK—In a bold move to stay ahead of the competition in the ratings war, producers of the hit program ABC World News Tonight announced Monday that star Peter Jennings "will not survive next season."
The secrets of exactly when and how the Jennings character will die are being kept closely guarded by the producers. Speculation from television-industry insiders, however, has ranged from Jennings' getting hit by a mortar shell while covering a February '98 civil war in Turkey to his perishing in a tragic newsroom fire.
ABC is already aggressively promoting Jennings' last episode, airing spots promising "The ABC World News Tonight you must not miss."
Addressing a group of Capital Cities/ABC shareholders Tuesday, World News Tonight executive producer Roone Arledge explained the move.
"Yes, our ratings have been strong of late: Last year's Flight 800 episode did huge numbers, as did the sweeps-week Oklahoma City bombing plotline," Arledge said. "But in this business, you constantly need the big hit, the big 'zazz' that will keep people glued to the screen. This should give us that hit."
With the precise date of Jennings' final episode a mystery, many observers predict a season-long ratings blockbuster for World News Tonight, with viewers tuning in nightly out of fear of missing his death. According to Washington Post TV critic Russell Lembeck, if announced in advance, the death episode could be the show's most-watched ever, eclipsing even the season-ending April 1981 "Who Shot Reagan?" cliffhanger.
"As you probably recall, the American public had to wait until the September 4, 1981, season opener to find out if Reagan got assassinated," Lembeck said. "That summer of '81, the only thing people talked about was whether they thought the president would live or die. It was a brilliant move on ABC's part."
Jennings, a World News Tonight fixture since the late '70s, is widely credited for the show's enduring popularity. He brought ABC viewers news of the Challenger explosion in 1986, was in Berlin for the 1989 toppling of the Berlin Wall and, in 1996, added intrigue to the show by poisoning David Brinkley.
ABC News fans were excited by Monday's announcement. "I'll be sure not to miss the Jennings finale—this could be even bigger than the wedding episode," said Bill Hodges of Covington, KY, referring to the 1989 on-air wedding between Jennings and Barbara Walters. "The only problem is, now we may never find out if he's really Cokie's father."
Despite the huge ratings sure to be generated by the death of the Jennings character, it could backfire in the long run, with detractors citing NBC's decision to "kill off" NBC Nightly News star Tom Brokaw in 1993. Massive viewer protest caused them to bring back Brokaw, in the form of a robot duplicate, but only after the show's ratings suffered a substantial drop from which it has yet to recover.
Arledge said: "We've been trying for years to match the huge ratings we got with the Gulf War—which also won an Emmy for set design—but viewers didn't respond to our midseason Unabomber capture the way we'd hoped. We knew that we needed a big gun, a blockbuster plotline to jolt people."
"We toyed with the idea of bringing back Brinkley," Arledge continued, "but the 'It was all a dream' thing has been done to death. In the end, we decided, 'Let's start phasing out the old guard and bring in some new blood."
According to Arledge, once Jennings dies, the show's lead anchor role will go to 26-year-old model/journalist Rock Palmer. "Get ready, ladies," Arledge said.
Arledge said that the younger, more attractive Palmer should provide a strong lead-in for 20/20's Deborah Roberts, Barbara Walters and Lynn Sherr, hyped in recent promotional spots as "The Bitches of ABC."