On the program she invented, on the network where she worked for the past 37 years, on the medium where she broke barriers and rules for more than 50 years, Barbara Walters will announce on Monday morning, definitively and with no regrets, that she is calling it a career.
“It’s time,” Ms. Walters said, previewing the announcement she will make to the national television audience watching her daily program, “The View.”
“I keep thinking of the line from ‘Cabaret,’ ” Ms. Walters said. “ ‘When I go, I’m going like Chelsea.’ When I go there is not going to be any, ‘Please can I have another appearance?’ I don’t want to do any more interviews. I don’t want to do any other programs. I’m not joining CNN. This is it.”
Like Johnny Carson, another television standout who took charge of his exit from the national stage, Ms. Walters is picking her television end date exactly one year in advance: over the next year she will participate in a series of retrospectives on ABC prime-time news programs and her home on “The View,” seeking, she said, “to say goodbye in the best way.”
Expectations that Ms. Walters, the nation’s first female anchorwoman, would make a formal retirement announcement surfaced in March. She returned from a vacation at that time to say on the air that she had no announcements to make.
But in an interview last week in her apartment overlooking Central Park, decorated with mementos and photographs of her interactions with boldfaced names of the past half-century, Ms. Walters, 83, confirmed that she had been pondering this decision for several years.
“It’s not something that just happened,” she said. “I’ve been thinking, When is the time? When I was turning 70 it was pretty old for television — to me now that’s a kid! But I remember thinking then, Is this the time to go?”
That was still in the previous century, well before the surgery to replace a heart valve in 2011. More recently her health again became news when she suffered a concussion in January after fainting at a pre-Inauguration party at the British Embassy in Washington. After several days it was announced that Ms. Walters had contracted chickenpox, which gave her an infection that led to the fainting spell.
“I am not leaving because I am in ill health,” Ms. Walters said. “I’m now fine. I had the chickenpox, which is ridiculous. I had never had it when I was a child, but I hugged someone who had shingles. I fell and got bloodied. It was not the chickenpox that was scary, it was the concussion. It was the same thing as Hillary Clinton fainting and falling. Chelsea said she needs to get her mother and me helmets.”
The inspiration for stepping aside next year is to take advantage of that continuing good health, Ms. Walters said. “I want to leave when I’m still very active and very viable.” She mentioned several times that she would like an opportunity to smell a few roses.
“I want to go someplace and actually see it,” she said. “I’ve been to China three times. I hope the Great Wall is still there. I went when Nixon went, but wound up running after him with a tape recorder.”
Last month, she said, she went to London on assignment (she has a special airing on May 24 on the next generation of the British royal family) and stayed for only a day and a half. “I’d like to stay maybe three days sometime,” Ms. Walters said.
Of course, the reason she left so quickly is symptomatic of why she has continued to work so long and why the decision to take a final bow is still surprising. “I came back that Monday because on ‘The View’ we had Sonia Sotomayor,” Ms. Walters said. “And I loved her book and I thought, I want to introduce her and I want to be on the show.”
How difficult will it be to turn all that off? “I won’t miss chasing the big interview get,” she said. “I will miss being on the air. I will miss writing. I will miss editing, which is what I think I do best.” She added, “There will be days when I want to weigh in on something and I will have no place to do it except to call a girlfriend. But on the other hand, the rewards are: I can have some fun.”
After another year, that is. The farewell tour (a term Ms. Walters rejected) will include appearing on one last edition of the 10 most fascinating people (they will not pick an all-time Top 10, but Ms. Walters will select a No. 1 overall); a last interview with President and Mrs. Obama; a series of retrospective clips from “The View”; possibly a last Academy Awards special (which Ms. Walters stopped doing three years ago); and a prime-time special next May that will attempt to sum up her career.
Ms. Walters has a wall in her apartment that is a fair approximation of how that summation might look: the list of interview subjects include Fidel Castro, Golda Meir and every president since Richard M. Nixon.
Don’t ask for her to pin down an individual high point, though she does come back often to the period of “shuttle diplomacy” when she was flying back and forth between Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel.
Mr. Castro made a charismatic impression; Muammar el-Qaddafi proved mercurial; Yasir Arafat gave her one of his trademark kaffiyehs. He also signed it, but her housekeeper thought it was laundry and put it in the wash.
“I asked Yeltsin if he drank too much and I asked Putin if he killed anybody,” Ms. Walters said, referring to the two Russian leaders. “Today there are not a lot of heads of state that you’d even want to interview.”
Any subjects who got away? “The Queen,” she said. “My bosses at ABC said maybe I should tell her it’s my last year.”
She has 12 Emmy Awards. But she said she probably took most pride in the comments from other women in the television business who told her she inspired them. She was, after all, the “Today” girl who forever changed that designation on morning television in 1974 when the host, Frank McGee, died. She had shrewdly inserted in her contract that should there be a change in the host role, she would inherit the title: co-host.
“From that moment it became co-host for women,” she said. “It was a meaningful event. That made me very proud.”
But now it’s goodbye to all that. She will retain the title of co-executive producer on “The View” and may consult on issues like who replaces Joy Behar or one of the other hosts. But nobody will replace Barbara Walters. She never took the title of moderator on the show, so there is no need to fill her position once she leaves.
Ms. Walters says as she contemplates how her life will change, she has been remembering a quote from one of her favorite interview subjects, the former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
“It may apply to me,” Ms. Walters said. “This was when she was no longer in office. She said, ‘I turn on the radio and I hear the news of something happening and I think: I’ve got to call the U.N., or I’ve got to go there. And then I realize: It’s not me anymore.’ ”
In Barbara Walters’s Highlight Reel, TV’s Rise and Fade
Por Alessandra Stanley [The New York Times, 13/5/13]
Pope Benedict XVI retired.
And so, soon, shall Barbara Walters.
The announcement on “The View” on Monday that Ms. Walters will leave ABC in 2014 was less a farewell than the kickoff of a drawn-out abdication ritual.
“I plan to retire from appearing on television at all,” Ms. Walters, 83, said after a slick highlights reel spanning 50 years of “gets” (Fidel Castro, Monica Lewinsky) was played. “There will be special occasions, and I will come back — I’m not walking into the sunset — but I don’t want to appear on another program or climb another mountain.”
And that star turn on “The View” was a helpful reminder of two things.
Obviously, Ms. Walters’s remarkable ascent from the secretarial pool of the “Mad Men” era to anchor desks and presidential yachts serves as a timeline of the women’s movement.
Just as significantly, however, her career mirrors the trajectory of television. Intuitively, knowingly or just luckily, Ms. Walters has moved — and is moving — in concert with tastes and audiences and real influence. She defected from nighttime to daytime just as many viewers were doing the same. For politicians and newsmakers, a loosey-goosey appearance on “The View” under her watch took on more value and resonance than a hard-hitting interview on any network evening news program.
And now, as more and more viewers leave broadcast television altogether, so does she. If she followed this road to its true conclusion, there would be a Barbara Walters video game for the Xbox.
Network news long ago began losing viewers and prestige. But now broadcast television itself seems ready for pasture. Every network has lost ground with the viewers most coveted by advertisers, those ages 18 to 49. Some of the best — and most watched — shows are on cable networks like AMC and FX. Netflix, Amazon and other companies are all getting into the production game.
In the era of Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when the networks considered the evening news too important to entrust to a woman, and paired Ms. Walters with a more authoritative-looking Harry Reasoner. The year was 1976, and many critics complained that Ms. Walters’s rise represented the fall of respectable television journalism, that her focus on personality and personal lives was too soapy and shallow for serious-minded viewers.
Now, of course, the pendulum has swung so far toward celebrity gossip and news-you-can-use on “NBC Nightly News,” ABC’s “World News” and “CBS Evening News” that Ms. Walters seems like a pillar of old-school journalism. But she pioneered the blurring of news and entertainment for a half-century without losing her authority. She put the Kardashians on her list of the 10 most fascinating people of the year in 2011; that year she also interviewed the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about his country’s uprising.
The current chairman and chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, Robert A. Iger, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York appeared on “The View” on Monday. Even though those men were paying homage to a television legend, it didn’t seem as if Ms. Walters had grown too old to keep working; it seemed as if the television legend had decided that the medium was too old to contain her drive.
Evening newscasts are clearly no longer the pinnacle of network prestige; for important newsmakers they are now a flyover between the hubs of morning talk shows and late-night comedy. There was a big to-do when Ms. Couric left NBC for CBS in 2006 to become the first woman appointed to be a permanent solo anchor of a network evening news show. That historic milestone quickly faded. After five years Ms. Couric left behind the sagging ratings and growing irrelevance of evening news and is now back in favor with an afternoon talk show, “Katie,” that was renewed by ABC for a second season.
Even daytime talk shows are on the losing side of entertainment history. “The View” is one of the leaders, and its ratings are in decline. “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” at its height in the 1990s, had 12 million to 13 million viewers. Even during her latter years on the air, Ms. Winfrey averaged about 6 million; Ms. Couric is holding her own with about 2.5 million.
Cast members come and go, but Ms. Walters is not just the creator of “The View,” she’s television personified, and word of her retirement was the subject of leaks weeks ago. Her plans for a farewell tour include specials and retrospectives and one last Oscar pregame extravaganza. It seems that the ever-ratings-minded Ms. Walters delayed a formal announcement until May to coincide with a sweeps month.
On Monday she playfully asked Mr. Iger, who is planning to retire in 2015, what they should do with their free time. He used the occasion to plug an ABC hit show that, like so many other network crowd pleasers, is also losing steam. “The two of us love to dance,” Mr. Iger said. “I say we go on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ ”
Network television is in its twilight years.
Ms. Walters is quitting at the top by letting others bottom out.