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In the Last Act of Her Groundbreaking Career, Barbara Walters Changed Daytime TV Forever

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There should be no confusion surrounding the greatest accomplishments of Barbara Walters, who died on Dec. 30 at 93. An icon of journalism, Walters busted barrier after barrier for women in the field, joining NBC’s Today show in 1964 without her starlet predecessors’ diminutive title of “Today Girl” and building a reputation that led ABC to hire her away, in 1976, as the first woman to co-anchor a national network’s evening news program. Over the course of a career spanning more than half a century that eventually brought her to the forefront of 20/20 and dozens of high-profile primetime specials, she coaxed revelatory insights out of the world’s most powerful heroes, villains and stars.

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“If I had told my young self that I would have the opportunity to interview every American President and First Lady since Richard Nixon, be able to do the first joint interview with Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin, or my unforgettable sit-down with Cuban President Fidel Castro, I would not have believed it,” Walters reflected in TIME after her 2014 retirement. “Yet, I knew I was driven to interview world leaders and icons.”

These were inarguably her most indelible achievements. But in the final decades of her singular career, Walters made another crucial contribution that is sure to outlive her: she created The View. Indeed, for many viewers too young to have watched much broadcast news in the 20th century, the long-running daytime talk show and controversy magnet is the program they most associate with her name. “How ironic is it,” her producing partner Bill Geddie asked in an interview for Ramin Setoodeh’s gossip-packed 2019 The View history Ladies Who Punch, “that whenever somebody talks about Barbara Walters in articles, it’s never the Barbara Walters as the first lady of journalism, or the Barbara Walters specials, or Barbara Walters of ABC News, or Barbara Walters the first female anchor. It’s always Barbara Walters creator of The View.”

The comment comes off as rueful. What a shame to see all that hard work, breaking stories and owning narratives and punching through glass ceilings, overshadowed by a chat show whose constantly feuding cohosts seem to spend just as much time making headlines as debating them. And doesn’t it just figure that a woman who clawed her way out of the pink-collar daytime trenches would finish up her career at a table cluttered with coffee mugs in ABC’s 11 a.m. time slot? But that’s an awfully reductive way of thinking about The View, which—despite its many chaotic low points—created a new, more ambitious, paradigm for talk shows aimed at a female audience.

Walters often framed its origin story as an accident. “The View sneaked up on me,” she recalled in her 2008 memoir Audition. “The last thing I was thinking about was daytime television.” But in 1997 ABC had a hole in its morning schedule and asked her for ideas. Drawing on a diverse set of influences including This Week With David Brinkley, Virginia Graham’s syndicated ’60s series Girl Talk and her own conversations with daughter Jacqueline, Walter pitched a show in which a multigenerational panel of women from a variety of backgrounds would discuss current events. Though the network wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the concept, it wasn’t flush with ideas, either. When Walters agreed to appear on it a few times per week, The View got the greenlight.

Her aim in recruiting the first panel, she wrote, was to “find four smart women of different ages and different personalities who could disagree without killing one another and, better still, might actually like each other.” That search yielded moderator Meredith Vieira, already a respected journalist; comedian Joy Behar; lawyer turned TV personality Star Jones; and 22-year-old Debbie Matenopoulos, who’d been working as a production assistant at MTV. Walters described their process for selecting The View’s trademark Hot Topics in Audition: “Talking and laughing, we decide which subjects we want to tackle. If it starts a discussion or better still an argument, we know we are onto something, but we are careful not to leave the argument in the dressing room. We save it for the broadcast so we can let the chips fall where they may.”

The View got off to a bumpy start, with disappointing viewership numbers and some ABC affiliates declining to air the show. As the show grew more popular—a shift that paralleled the public’s increasing fixation on then-President Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, one that played to the panel’s strengths by virtue of its combination of sex and politics—tabloids and late-night writers picked cohosts to scrutinize. Matenopoulos, the first original cast member to get fired, was too ditzy. Jones, the only Black panelist at the time, was too fat and then too circumspect about the weight-loss surgery she’d only admit to having had years later, as well as too much of a shill for the companies that underwrote her fantasy wedding.

Some of these critiques happened to be legitimate. Others were, in retrospect, nothing more than coded expressions of misogyny, racism, ageism. And they set a tone for coverage of the show and its stars that persists more than two decades later. It’s hard to name a long-running TV hit that isn’t a mess of egos, feuds and contract-negotiation melees, but only The View got branded a catfight. Stars like Rosie O’Donnell (who did two short stints on the show years apart) and Whoopi Goldberg challenged what was, by some accounts, Walters’ unilateral power. Token conservatives from Elisabeth Hasselbeck to Meghan McCain, who left the show in 2021, turned up the heat in political debates.

Although McCain—who joined the show in 2017, three years after Walters retired—had made it easy to forget with her teary, fact-deficient tirades, this engagement with hard news and hot-button political controversies set The View apart from its rivals. Amid an increasingly polarized cultural conversation driven first by the Clinton impeachment saga and then by the 2000 election, 9/11 and the Iraq War, the ladies of The View often tackled the same subjects as the bellowing men who dominated cable news. As Setoodeh puts it: “The show offered a venue where opinion wasn’t just as important as news, it was the news in some cases.” Meanwhile, morning talk-show rivals such as Regis and Kelly and Rachael and Ellen and Maury stuck to painstakingly apolitical fluff: celebrity interviews, cooking and lifestyle segments, paternity tests.

It’s true that Walters wasn’t the first to introduce serious subjects into the realm of daytime coffee talk; Oprah and Phil Donahue deserve the credit for that. Neither was the panel format unprecedented. (Crossfire, which debuted on CNN way back in 1982, was probably never derided as a catfight.) The revelation was the sense it created of real, multifaceted women—who gossiped and voted, who read People and the newspaper—having more-or-less informed conversations about a wide variety of things that genuinely mattered to them. As James Poniewozik noted in a TIME feature on The View from 2000: “Previous morning shows were aimed at permanent housewives, offering a simulated coffee hour of chitchat in a fake living room with fake neighbors. The View recognizes that its viewers—still 72% female—include part-timers, telecommuters and maternity-leavers. Trying to get through the day without murdering the kids, they want to escape not to a surrogate home but to a surrogate office.”

While the permanent-housewife demographic probably also deserved less condescending TV programming than it was getting, what’s crucial here is the idea of treating women, no matter how they pass the hours between 9 and 5, not as cosseted helpmates confined to the domestic sphere, but as full, educated participants in public life. The show may, more often than one would prefer, conform to certain gendered stereotypes, but it also confirms that women talking to each other can have conversations of substance. That, more than anything else, is the legacy Walters brought to The View in 1997 and left with it in 2014. She set a standard that a generation of lesser copycat panel shows, from NBC’s short-lived Later Today to CBS’s The Talk to The Real, in syndication, scrambled to meet. (The View also begat The Other Half, which briefly convened Dick Clark, Danny Bonaduce and Mario Lopez to provide a male point of view to a female audience. Who could possibly have predicted women’s apathy to such a premise?)

Oprah may have claimed the lyrical slogan “I’m every woman,” but over the course of 24 years on television, Walters’ vision of culturally literate, politically opinionated panel discussion among women of all ages, races, faiths and sexual orientations has most expansively embodied it. In the world of The View, women—even women who vote for the same candidates or represent the same generation—are never a monolith. There is no one “female take” on any given issue. And now that it has become a requisite stop for just about everyone with something to promote, including politicians on the campaign trail, those visits offer novel perspectives on public figures. You can tell a lot about a person, of any gender, by surrounding them with opinionated women.

I think this all goes a long way toward explaining the show’s continued appeal. It’s why I secretly tuned in during high-school vacations in the late ’90s, as a teen too angsty to stomach the saccharine of Kathie Lee Gifford, and why I still occasionally watch on slow work days two decades later, as an adult whose appetite for its daytime competitors and cable-news counterparts vanished long ago. It’s also probably why The View is one of just a few topics I can discuss at length with both my 60-something mom and my 90-something grandmother.

The show didn’t mark the apex of Walters’ career, and you would have to be on the ABC payroll to deny that it has declined quite a bit in the eight years since she exited its cozy set. But its insistence on taking women seriously changed daytime TV just as profoundly as her ascendance as a serious woman in the anchor’s seat changed the face of broadcast news. How fortunate we are that, in the final decades of a historic life, Barbara Walters took a little time to enjoy the view.

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