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Jennings Signs ABC Contract

The new production company, to be called P.J. Productions, will allow Jennings to continue his “Peter Jennings Reports” documentary series.

Jennings also agreed to extend his tenure as anchor for the next three years. Neither ABC nor Jennings would reveal the financial terms of the new contract — which was agreed to in principal in August — although Jennings’ annual salary has been estimated at over $10 million.

Allowing Jennings to create the production company appeared to be part of the network’s effort to keep the 64-year-old newsman in the “World News Tonight” anchor’s chair.

Although ABC previously inked similar deals with “20/20” anchor Barbara Walters and former “Good Morning America” co-anchor Joan Lunden, this deal would grant Jennings ownership rights to the programming P. J. Productions creates.

Under the contract, ABC will buy at least four hours of documentaries for prime time hours from Jennings’ company each year through 2007. Jennings and Executive Producer Tom Yellin can also sell documentaries to other networks, although not to ABC broadcast competitors CBS, Fox and NBC.

With a nightly average of 10.4 million viewers, “World News Tonight” currently ranks second in the ratings behind NBC’s “Nightly News,” which reaches some 10.8 million viewers. CBS’s “Evening News,” anchored by Dan Rather, follows in third place, drawing an average evening audience of 8.8 million.

NBC’s Tom Brokaw, 62, announced last spring he would step down as anchor of the “Nightly News” after the 2004 presidential election, when he would be replaced by NBC’s longtime substitute anchor Brian Williams.

Rumors have swirled about whether Rather will re-sign at CBS, but neither the anchor nor the network have commented concretely on their future plans. Rather told CNN in June he would stay in the anchor’s chair “as long as I feel good about doing it, and as long as they want me to do it.”

For his part, Jennings has not tapped a replacement and would not speculate whether he plans to renew his contract beyond 2005.

“I don’t know what I’m going to want to do in three years,” Jennings said on Sunday. “I’m not sure that ABC knows what it’s going to want to do then, either.”

ABC’s future plans have been the subject of much speculation in recent weeks. Amid talks of a merger with CNN, owned by AOL-Time Warner, Jennings’ network and ABC’s news programming could undergo a rapid transformation.

“Our industry is in a period of rapid change and I am happy that we have found a way to continue doing documentaries, which I love,” Jennings said in a prepared statement released Sunday.

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