The show snuck on the air in the middle of August, using a set recycled from the defunct soap opera “The City.”
Nobody, not even exec producers Barbara Walters and Bill Geddie, thought “The View” had much of a chance of surviving in the 11 a.m. weekday time period that had been a black hole for ABC for a more than a decade.
Seventeen years and nearly 3,800 episodes later, “The View” has made an enormous mark on morning TV. And it has contributed greatly to Walters’ considerable legacy by showing a side of her that viewers previously hadn’t seen.
But make no mistake — “The View” was never designed to be softball TV. “We’re not a puff show,” Walters says. “We can be more opinionated.”
Walters deliberately cut through the aura of her news icon persona, and in so doing extended her on-air career in a way that was a few steps ahead of its time. “View” was akin to social media when it started in 1997 — a group of friends yakking about things on their minds and in the newspaper. “Barbara wanted people to see that she was funny, and that she had a sense of humor about herself,” Geddie tells Variety.
The show’s format of a panel of women discussing topical issues, the morning headlines, relationship issues and gossipy matters in coffee-klatsch style was inspired by the lively conversations Walters had with her daughter, Jackie. She recognized the importance of putting women of different backgrounds and generations together to offer perspectives on all manner of subjects. From the start, the energy of the program came from its ability to turn on a dime.
“We wake up every morning, and about half of our show is decided in the makeup room,” Geddie says. “We’ll talk about the missing (Malaysian Airlines) plane and about what the Kardashians are doing in the same segment. That was always our vision. Barbara and I would have been very bored doing a traditional daytime talkshow. We felt women at home deserved a better kind of show.”
Geddie and Walters have worked together for 25 years — ever since he took over as exec producer of Walters’ primetime specials in 1989. “The View,” which is co-produced and co-owned with ABC by Walters’ Barwall Prods., was first pitched to the network as a half-hour program.
Pat Fili-Krushel, then president of daytime programming at ABC (and now chairman of NBCUniversal News Group), loved the concept, but knew the network couldn’t make it work as a half-hour. At the time, most of the successful talkshows in daytime were edgy solo-host vehicles such as those fronted by Sally Jessy Raphael, Montel Williams and Maury Povich. ABC was looking to replace its flagging daytime talk/variety series “Caryl & Marilyn: Real Friends,” which had followed underwhelming efforts such as lifestyle skeins “Mike and Maty” and “The Home Show.”
Walters and Geddie went through some focus-group research to get a better handle on the interests of typical femme daytime TV viewers. The show’s name was inspired by the setpiece that ABC gave them for a backdrop. It was a picture window that looked out on a not-terribly convincing painting of a New York City brownstone. The initial moniker, “The View From Here” was shortened when they discovered a Canadian series had already claimed that name.
Fili-Krushel thought the combination of Walters’ celebrity and the unusual format of five co-hosts speaking conversationally would draw attention. Roone Arledge, head of ABC News and Sports at the time, tried to have the project killed out of concern it would harm Walters’ credibility as a journalist. Bob Iger, then-head of ABC, was skeptical but supportive in light of Walters’ involvement.
“I remember him saying ‘Five women; are you crazy? It’s hard enough to get one talent to work,” she says. Walters and Geddie tested numerous combinations and number of panelists, but wound up sticking with the four who came together early on: Joy Behar, Star Jones, Debbie Matenopoulos and Meredith Vieira.
“The View” had an unspectacular launch, hampered by years of low numbers in the timeslot and a lack of uniform nationwide clearances.
Six months after its launch on Aug. 11, 1997, Fili-Krushel asked Iger for more time to let the show find its legs.
Gradually, “The View” found its rhythm, and convinced straying stations to carry the show in pattern. “Every few months on the air we’d make a big deal of saying, ‘Welcome, Boise’ … ‘Welcome San Antonio,’ ” Geddie says.
The real turning point came when they decided to hold a nationwide contest to replace Matenopoulos, who was abruptly dismissed at the end of the show’s second year. By the time Lisa Ling settled into the slot in 1999, the show’s ratings had doubled. Walters scaled back her appearances to two or three times a week, but her workload still marked an extraordinary commitment from a journalist who continued to co-host “20/20” and handle other ABC News assignments, as well as host her own periodic primetime specials.
“The thing about Barbara is that she is so smart. She wore two hats on the show — as an executive producer as well as talent,” Fili-Krushel says. “Sometimes we would say to her, ‘Take off your talent hat and put on your executive producer hat.’ She was very capable of doing both. You don’t often find those skills in the same person.”
With Walters officially bowing out of her on-air role in May — she and Geddie will remain exec producers — “The View” is in the midst of reinventing its lineup for its 18th season, experimenting this year with a profusion of guest hosts.
The current panel stands at Whoopi Goldberg as moderator, comedian Sherri Shepherd and actress Jenny McCarthy.
Walters’ pumps will be very hard to fill. “Nobody’s going to replace Barbara Walters,” says Geddie, who is producing a two-hour retrospective on her career that will air on ABC later this year.
Ramin Setoodeh contributed to this report.