Five years ago, David Muir arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, where a crew from TMZ greeted him. "How does it feel to be the Brad Pitt of network news?" someone asked off camera. Muir wisely smiled, said, "Nice to see you," and moved on. "My apologies to Brad Pitt," the new anchor of ABC World News now says when asked about the encounter.
But a previous ABC anchor also got a lot of attention for his good looks when he started out, and Muir is happy to cite him as an inspiration. "Peter Jennings was the James Bond of evening news, and I always wanted to be that," Muir says from his office at ABC News Headquarters in Manhattan. "His evening news was really a conversation with America, and I hope that's something I can achieve. Peter traveled the world and, in moments of crisis, was able to synthesize these complicated stories into very relatable ones."
When Muir, 40, takes over for Diane Sawyer on Sept. 2, he will be the youngest network evening news anchor since a 26-year-old Jennings was given the job in 1965. (Jennings flopped in that first go-round, but after years of reporting overseas, he returned in the 1980s for a long, successful run.)
Muir is already a seasoned correspondent, having reported from Egypt's Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring protests, earthquake-ravaged Haiti, and other international hot spots. He's also a skilled TV performer who understands the value of a good prop: A radioactivity meter in his office is a reminder of his coverage of the 2011 nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan. And after the 2011 tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri, Muir used a cracked helmet to tell a story of a child who survived. "In the field, David can disappear for an hour and come back with an incredible story," says executive producer Michael Corn. (Corn, who will soon take over Good Morning America, worked with Muir when he subbed for Sawyer.) "He's a natural."
While the handoff to a new anchor comes with the risk of alienating viewers, the World News audience already seems comfortable with Muir. The weekend anchor since 2011 and primary substitute for Sawyer, he filled in on seven out of the 19 broadcasts in July when ABC's program was No. 1 among viewers ages 25 to 54, the target audience for news advertisers. ABC won the demographic in May as well, which marked the first time it has topped NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams in a ratings sweeps period since 2007.
The ratings rise has elicited some shots from competitors and critics who say World News devotes more time to entertainment features, consumer segments, and weather than a serious evening news program should (Good Morning America weather anchor Ginger Zee is the program's most frequent contributor). One competing network news executive even refers to World News as "Good Evening America," an unflattering comparison to ABC's breezy morning program.
Corn counters that ABC's broadcast focuses on stories that connect with viewers' everyday lives. "It's a very common defense tactic to say, 'Our show may not be as interesting as the other guys', but we're more important,'" Corn says of his competition. "There's no excuse to not provide relevant information to people."
The mandate to keep World News user-friendly will continue under Muir, who answers tweets from viewers during commercial breaks. He is also popular with colleagues — on the Fridays he filled in for Sawyer, he treated the staff to lunch from Shake Shack — and says he's comfortable with his promotion happening just as George Stephanopoulos was named ABC News' "chief anchor," which means Stephanopoulos will lead breaking news and special-event coverage, duties traditionally handled by the evening anchor. "We're all a team," Muir says. "If George didn't have a gigantic role on election night, that would be silly. I think people will see enough of my face at 6:30 every night."