Barbara Walters actually had quite an idea 20 years ago.
Different women, different points of view. It was called...The View.
Already a trailblazing newswoman herself, Walters and co-creator Bill Geddie assembled an all-woman panel to conduct interviews and discuss the pressing issues of the day—the "Hot Topics"—from the serious to the silly. Like any new show, especially one trying to find its footing in the ultra-competitive network morning show landscape (now made all the more congested by cable and online options), there were some growing pains. The tendency for the ladies to interrupt or talk over each other also became fodder for many a spoof take on the talk show.
But overall, Walters' grand plan was a hit with the largely female a.m. audience, and as critics noted at the time—where else were you seeing five accomplished women talk among themselves every day on TV?
Original co-host Debbie Matenopoulous exited after two seasons. Lisa Ling replaced her and lasted for three. The show's been on for so long now that they qualify for the we-hardly-knew-ye status, but compared to the revolving door that's been shuffling one-and-done hosts in and out over the last several years, the late '90s were a remarkably stable time.
But it wasn't long before the stars of The View were the ones making all the news. Original co-host Star Jones faced backlash in 2004 when it appeared she was exchanging on-air mentions for free goods and services for her wedding that year to now ex-husband Al Reynolds, and then she didn't tell all when it came to her dramatic weight loss—when of course everyone wanted to know how she was really losing weight. The writing was on the wall, and so in 2006, after nine years on The View, Jones became the first to exit in a real blaze of drama.
Jones announced on air that she was leaving two days before Walters expected it, also telling People she had been fired and prompting Walters to also tell the magazine that she felt "betrayed" by how Jones handled the whole situation.
Despite initial public insistence that Jones could remain on the show for as long as she wished, Walters' explanation for Jones' ouster was ultimately rather clinical. The day after Jones' on-air announcement, Walters told The New York Times, "They had done a great deal of research, and her negatives were rising. Not so much because of what she did on the air. It was things she did off the air. The audience was losing trust in her. They didn't believe some of the things she said."
Ouch. But OK, off Jones went (as did Meredith Vieira that year, to join the Today show), and in came Rosie O'Donnell.
But once the most prominent stories to come out of The View were about the women themselves, the narrative never went back. O'Donnell and her frequent sparring partner Elisabeth Hasselbeck, whose heated disagreements gave the show a political bent it didn't have before (or at least not nearly as visibly), didn't do anything to slow the parade of headlines about behind-the-scenes discord.
As it turned out, those two did indeed have their issues with each other, as have some of the hosts since those storied days. But forever after, even in times of relative uneventfulness, the prevailing vibe has been "the feuding women of The View." It became the place where women went to not get along, couldn't possibly be getting along; where the conservative voice would be inevitably drowned out by louder, more liberal voices; where either Walters or later Whoopi Goldberg was plotting another co-host's firing at any given moment; or it was Walters and Goldberg who were fighting.
Yet still, The View has persisted—as well as given rise to similarly conceived shows, such as The Talk and The Real, that go all in on the female perspective.
Jenny McCarthy's firing after one season (alongside Sherri Shepherd's firing after seven seasons) in 2014 set the revolving door spinning faster than ever, as 10 "permanent" co-hosts have since occupied one of several available seats. O'Donnell's big return in 2014 only lasted five months. Paula Faris is the longest-tenured newer co-host, having been around since 2015. (Not including Joy Behar, who has been at the table for 19 of 21 seasons and rejoined in 2015.) Barbara Walters' retirement in 2014 also prompted speculation that the show wouldn't survive for long without her. There's even been talk here and there about the possibility of bring in a...gasp...man as a regular co-host. (Men have served admirably as guest-hosts.)
But while it's still proving hard to keep people at the table full-time for long, and Goldberg is only signed through the end of this season, the show's 20th (2016-'17) was actually its most-watched season in three years.
For starters, like CBS' Late Show and others, The View appears to have benefited from the Trump bump, as audiences have been wanting political talk with their coffee and their night caps. And though the world at large relishes a good feud, people can only take so much vitriol—and The View seems to have settled into a less contentious rhythm just in time.
Because while politics were one thing, and continue to be a big thing, since October barely a day has gone by without news of another prominent male celebrity or man in a position of power who's alleged to have engaged in some form of despicable sexual misconduct. Since the New York Times and New Yorker first published damning accusations against production mogul Harvey Weinstein, leading to his ouster from his own company and prompting the opening of multiple criminal investigations against him, the floodgates have opened: dozens of women and men have been emboldened to go on the record about their own experiences, leading to a litany of firings and contract terminations in a variety of industries, as well as a raging debate about how to handle such allegations in the upper echelons of government.
Two of the latest bombshells dropped right on the morning-show landscape, with CBS firing Charlie Rose last week and NBC announcing just Wednesday morning that Matt Lauer had been sacked after he was accused of sexual misconduct and the network was led to believe there were other incidents as well. (Lauer has yet to issue any statement in response to his firing or the allegations against him.)
Watching CBS This Morning's Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell report on Rose, who up till 24 hours beforehand had been their co-host, and then watching Today's Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb have to do the same regarding Lauer this morning, it's hard to fathom what they're going through—as it's been hard but essential to put ourselves in the shoes of anyone who may have been victimized by colleagues on the job, men they should have been able to trust.
And that's why it's a shame that The View for so many years became a self-fulfilling prophecy, that if you put five strong women at the same table they're going to fight tooth and nail for alpha status. Once it became apparent that people came for Rosie or Whoopi or Elisabeth and then stayed for the drama, there was never a season without news of some roiling feud behind the scenes. While many of the rumors of discord were ultimately overblown and some were downright untrue, it did become an exhausting place to work for some of the women who probably signed on thinking it would be easier to stay above the fray.
Yet at its inception, the core of what Walters envisioned was not only way ahead of its time (The Talk didn't even premiere until 2010), but also something society is still finding itself so desperately in need of today—more female voices. Together. Not coming in second to male voices.
You don't have to agree with The View's voices to know that, either.
Not every co-host who's ever sat at that table has reinvented the conversational wheel, and over 20 years, you're going to have a fair share of blunders, botched interviews and what-was-she-thinking? moments. Just because all the hosts are women doesn't mean The View gets a pass for offensive or otherwise misguided comments. Like every show (just watch old clips of Live With Regis and Kathie Lee), some "jokes" that flew in the 1990s—or even five years ago—do not fly now.
But as much as The View perpetuated a certain stereotype, of loud females talking over each other and backstabbing behind the scenes, that was just the sideshow. It was and remains an extremely important addition to the TV world. It's one of the still too-few offerings that brings diverse female perspectives together in one place. While everyone continues to lament the male dominance in late night (at least recently infiltrated by Samantha Bee and Robin Thede), The View is a show where women have always ruled the roost, bright and early.
Yes, they've pecked at each other, some more viciously than others. The entertainment business is cutthroat and everyone, women included, could to do better at lifting each other up. But while even Barbara Walters couldn't have known it in 1997, her idea for a show—different women, different points of view—would be needed more than ever in 2017.
(E! and NBC are both members of the NBCUniversal family.)