Diane Sawyer and Elizabeth Vargas

(WOMENSENEWS)–With two women being considered by ABC as possible replacements for recently deceased ABC World News Tonight host Peter Jennings, media watchers say TV news may indeed be heading into a new season.

“America is no longer under the sway of the white male stereotype,” says Joe Foote, interim dean at University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications. “Times have changed since the last time those slots were vacant and the public is ready for a woman (to sit in one of those chairs).”

Twenty-two years ago, when Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw stepped into their nightly news anchor seats at ABC, CBS, and NBC respectively, female competitors were nowhere in sight. At the time less than one fifth of journalists were women and it was still industry wisdom that a woman’s voice could not be as authoritative as that of a man.

NBC replaced Brokaw when he stepped down last year with Brian Williams and got some heat for it. Meanwhile, six months after Rather’s departure, CBS is still withholding details of an impending makeover for its “CBS Evening News.”

Now ABC has sparked widespread speculation about Jennings’ successor by placing two highly visible women–Diane Sawyer and Elizabeth Vargas–on the shortlist of candidates. ABC executives have indicated they are in no hurry to name Jennings’ replacement and may take months to make a final decision. ABC did not return repeated calls for comment.

Reality of Experience

“No one can argue against the reality that there are women out there with the reporting depth and experience to rival, and in some cases surpass, that of their male colleagues,” says Foote.

Between 1983 and 2002 Foote spearheaded a study of women and minorities on the nightly news programs of the three networks. Researchers for the study, conducted through the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University, looked for female and minority male correspondents who delivered at least five broadcasts a year. When the study began only 31 percent of these correspondents met that criterion. By the end of the study, during the late 1990s, that figure had reached a high of 53 percent.

Of the top 100 most visible correspondents in the study, women accounted for 23 percent in 1983, a percentage that rose to 56 percent by the close of the study in 2002.

Women now make up more than 40 percent of local TV station employees and 24 percent of radio station staff members, according to a 2003 study by the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Eleanor Clift

Women have also made significant inroads. From handling sports, news and entertainment beats to hosting political talk shows to covering armed conflicts, women are working side by side with men in most areas of broadcast journalism. But at the top of the industry women are still scarce.

“If you go into the White House press room, there’s almost an equal number of women and men,” says Eleanor Clift, a Newsweek contributing editor and co-chair of the International Women’s Media Foundation, a Washington-based organization working to strengthen the role of women in the world media. “But as you go up the ladder towards the boardroom, women are not represented the way we should be and that is a major concern for women in the industry.”

Women make up 13.9 percent of general managers at television stations and 7 percent at radio stations according to the radio association study. Women holds 15 percent of executive positions and represent 12 percent of board members in the communications industry as a whole, according to a 2003 study by The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Barriers to Promotion

The twin struggles of balancing work and family and lower salaries–women in journalism earn an average of 19 percent less than their male counterparts–consistently cause women to change companies or leave the industry. While novices of both sexes start out with comparable salaries, after 15 years on the job men make an average of $4,425 more than women. That figure that jumps to $7,314 after 20 years.

“Truth be told women coming into the industry today are far more comfortable with high profile and management positions than previous generations, but it will take time for these women to rise up the ranks,” says Clift.

Another barrier to advancement for women in television is aging itself. While it has long been acceptable for a male newsman to age, as gracefully as possible, in front of the cameras women are just now breaking down that barrier.

“There are several women out there, like Barbara Walters and Andrea Mitchell, with proven staying power that are debunking the broadcast myth that women will only report as long as they are young and beautiful,” says Foote.

As early as their mid-40s, when men are perceived to be hitting their stride, women who have not crossed the invisible threshold of durability may find themselves beginning to lose out on desirable assignments both to their male and younger female counterparts.

“The benchmark is extremely hard to qualify but for women who’ve failed to pass it, they become increasingly vulnerable,” says Foote.

Breaching the Barriers

Both Sawyer and Vargas have crossed the barrier.

Sawyer, 59, the co-host of ABC’s Good Morning America, has been in the business since 1967, when she began her career at WKLY-TV, a small Louisville, Ky., station. She went on to work as a presidential press aide during Richard Nixon’s troubled presidency and as state department correspondent for CBS before joining ABC in 1989.

Vargas, at 42, currently shares World News Tonight hosting duties with Charles Gibson. She worked for NBC in the 1990s before becoming the first female correspondent of Latino heritage on ABC’S weekly news magazine 20/20 in 1997.

While few would question Sawyer’s ability to serve out her career years headlining World New Tonight, ABC executives might prove skittish about removing her from ABC’s most popular news program, Good Morning America.

Since Sawyer began sharing the morning helm six years ago, the ABC show has narrowed its audience gap with its NBC rival the Today Show from 3 million people to under 500,000 this year. Naming Vargas, already familiar to World News Tonight viewers, could be a boon both for Latinos and women.

Industry watchers, however, expect executives to favor a more senior ABC staffer. ABC’s list of possible replacements includes 62-year-old Gibson and Bob Woodruff, in his mid-40s.

The advent of thousands of Internet media sites and 24-hour news cable networks such as FOX and CNN has drawn viewers away from network news and somewhat lessened the national suspense about who the networks name as anchors.

But with three networks still drawing between 25 million and 28 million viewers every night, the question is still vital, especially when major news stories break and the anchors start working around the clock.

“It’s still a big deal to be the evening news anchor,” says Clift. “When something goes horribly wrong you are the consoler; that anchor is out there like the president, speaking to the country.”

Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East, and South Asia.