Barbara Walters did not have her own show to host until the late 1970s, though by that time she was clearly established as one of the preemi nent figures of TV news talk. She had been working hard ever since she came to the Today show in 1961, working even harder after her father declared bankruptcy in 1966 and Walters found herself in the position of supporting her parents and sister.41 But there was more than money involved in Barbara Walters' drive to become one of television's top newswomen. Some of her first anchors and cohosts on the Today show caused problems as they resisted her ambitions. She had a good relationship with Hugh Downs, who had also worked well with Arlene Francis as her announcer on the NBC Home show. But Downs left Today in October 1971. His successor was Frank McGee, a tough, well-respected reporter who had worked in Oklahoma City, Montgomery, Washington, and New York. He appeared to get along with Walters on camera, but relations between the two were strained.42 McGee insisted on opening and closing the show himself, and initiating all studio interviews that had been assigned to Walters. ''If we did political interviews from Washington,'' Walters said, ''Frank insisted on asking the first three questions. Then I was allowed to step in.'' She had more leeway in interviews from the field. ''If I were able to get them on my own and I could then do them on film, outside the studio, I could do more hard-news interviews, which I enjoyed.''43
Turning necessity to advantage, Walters began her series of interviews with famous personalities, including Presidents Nixon and Ford. Though NBC wouldn't give her sole-host status on the Today show, she obtained that goal when she took over hosting duties for the syndicated show Not For Women Only in 1971. Initiated as a response to the growing demand of advertisers to reach the new daytime women's audience, Not For Women Only was a talk/discussion show that focused on a single topic for the entire week's five half-hour programs. It turned out to be one of the most durable woman-oriented programs of the 1970s, running for eight years in syndication. It also proved that Barbara Walters was up to the task of running a show herself.
Though not entirely happy with the limits placed on her at NBC, Walters stayed with the network through the first part of the decade. When Frank McGee left Today in 1974, suffering from terminal cancer, it looked as if things might improve for Walters with the appointment of new anchor Jim Hartz. Hartz had Walter's approval, and she was finally elevated to an official cohost status. By 1974 Walters had been named ''Woman of the Year'' by the Ladies' Home Journal and made the cover of Newsweek. The Today show was very profitable for the network. In the preceding four years it had netted $10 million a year, making it
NBC's most lucrative daytime venture and leaving the other network morning shows far behind. Still Walters did not have the one thing she wanted: control of her own show and of her broadcasting image.
Several blocks away in midtown Manhattan major changes were occurring at ABC. Fred Pierce was named president of ABC Television in 1974, determined to turn the fortunes of the network around. Under programming "genius" Fred Silverman, Pierce launched such hit entertainment shows as Happy Days, Starsky and Hutch, and Laverne and Shirley, and ABC finally achieved parity with the two stronger commercial networks, becoming for a time the top-rated network in prime time. In November 1975, ABC launched Good Morning, America with David Hartman to challenge Today. In 1976, Pierce signed Barbara Walters for ABC in a "raid" that stunned the industry. ABC lured Walters from NBC with a $1 million yearly salary contract ($500,000 from ABC News and $500,000 from the Entertainment Division) and the promise to allow her to develop her own shows. She was at first to cohost the evening news with Harry Reasoner and produce a series of Barbara Walters interview specials.44
The news of Walters' hire and million-dollar salary was greeted with the "avalanche of publicity'' the ABC brass had hoped for, but the adjustment was not as smooth as they had hoped. The odd-couple pairing of Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters did not work out; nor did the new format, which was to emphasize Walters' personality profiles. Pierce and News Division head Bill Sheehan had expected to expand national news from half an hour to forty-five minutes or an hour; in fact, the expansion was announced to the press, but affiliates resisted because they did not want to lose advertising time, and ABC retreated. Walters' interview pieces would radically reduce the time ABC had for hard news. Reasoner objected. The veteran newsman, acerbic about the arrangement from the beginning, engaged in behind-the-scene battles for camera and air time. When Roone Arledge entered the picture, he attempted to salvage the situation by putting veteran CBS news producer Av Westin in charge of the show. "When I got there,'' said Westin, "I was told that Reasoner was owed a five-minute, thirty-second piece because she had done a five-minute, thirty-second piece several weeks before. It was terrible.''45 Westin ordered director Charlie Heinz to stop shooting both anchors at the same time and to check their facial expressions, since both anchors frequently registered disgust with one another. Walters and Reasoner marked out their space on different ends of the set.
Press coverage did not help. The Washington Post billed Walters as ''A Million-Dollar Baby Handling 5-and-io Cent News,''46 and broadcasting traditionalists were appalled at the entertainment orientation of ABC News. CBS's Walter Cronkite, who had been a supporter of Walters on the Today show, confessed to a ''sickening sensation that we were all going under, that all of our efforts to hold television news aloof from show business had failed.''47 ABC upped its spending on the evening news, Time noted, to about $44 million a year versus about $47 million each for CBS and NBC.48 The addition of a single ratings point for ABC could be worth as much as $2.7 million a year in extra advertising revenue, the article pointed out, and that would mean a ''170% profit on the Walters investment."49
By fall 1976, before Walters went on the air, ABC had commissioned a Frank Magid survey to determine audience reaction to a woman news host. Forty-six percent said they would like to see a woman deliver the news, 4i percent did not care, and only thirteen percent said they would prefer a man.50 Now ABC commissioned another Magid survey. This one reported that reaction to Barbara Walters was negative. Complaints were that she was ineffective as an anchor, she was overpaid, and she had a bad voice.51 Walters was devastated. News division chief Roone Arledge, feeling Walters had ''star quality'' and sensing an ally in his efforts to bring entertainment values to the news, discounted the Magid report and made it clear he was willing to stick with her. Though Arledge was to hire and develop a number of new major stars of news talk at ABC, including Geraldo Rivera, Ted Koppel, and Diane Sawyer, Walters was the first major star he had to work with in developing the new, entertainment-oriented news division of the network, and for a while she was an expensive liability.
Arledge and his assistants worked to try to place Walters in vehicles that suited her talents, including an ill-fated entertainment/variety special with Howard Cosell. Other programming exposures, following her natural bent in interviewing, were more successful. Though often ridiculed at first, her celebrity interview specials garnered good ratings. Her first special, with President Jimmy Carter, became a parody item when she ended the program by saying, ''Be good to us, Mr. President, be kind,''52 but millions watched. Walters was able to tap personal revelations from off-guard moments in these interviews, and she was able to interview some of Hollywood's biggest stars—Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Bing Crosby, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, and Bette Davis, among others.
In the end, the move from NBC to ABC paid off for Walters and ABC. By 1980, through the force of her personality, her celebrity interview profiles, and her cohosting duties on the ABC newsmagazine, 20/20, with her old Today-show companion Hugh Downs, Walters had reconstructed herself on television. After four years of trial and error, supported by the ABC executives who had invested in her, she reasserted her position as a titan of talk.
Dinah Shore's emergence as a daytime talk-show host for NBC in August 1970 represented her fourth career in show business. She had already had three: as a singer of blues, jazz, and pop hits; as a Hollywood actress who appeared in eight pictures while married to actor/producer George Montgomery; and finally, starting in 1951, as the host of The Chevy Show Starring Dinah Shore, a fifteen-minute variety show that aired twice weekly until July 1957, and resumed as a weekly variety hour in color on NBC until 1961.53 That show had made her one of the best-known celebrities in the United States.
Shore was known for her bubbly brand of Southern hospitality and intimacy with her audience (she developed a trademark of a waved kiss to the audience at the end of each show). In the 1950s, she won several Emmys and was named television personality of the year. She left series television in the early 1960s to devote herself to her family and charity interests. Shore's comeback talk show, Dinah's Place, aired on August 3, 1970, and ran on NBC until July 26, 1974.
Despite their differences, Barbara Walters and Dinah Shore had a number of things in common. Both were Jewish. Both were extremely hard workers, something noted by all who knew them. Both had good educations, and both had felt like outsiders growing up, with early setbacks in their lives, and then a redoubled determination and will to succeed.
Born Frances Rose Shore in 1917 and known as "Fanny," "Dinah" adopted her stage name shortly before launching her professional singing career. Her father was an immigrant furniture merchant, and her mother had been an aspiring opera singer. Until the family moved to Nashville, in 1923 when Shore was six, they lived in Winchester, Tennessee, where they were the town's only Jewish family. As a child, Shore suffered from polio, which affected her right foot and leg. Six years of arduous therapy were needed to overcome an awkward walk and limp, which remained well into her elementary school days in Nashville. This was one of the principal reasons she adopted an early regimen of tennis, swimming, and ballet. Her mother encouraged her performing talents, and this, too, helped her overcome her feelings of being an outsider and ''an ugly duckling.''
By the time she began her new career as a daytime talk-show host, at the age of fifty-three, Dinah Shore was well known as a singer, celebrity, host, homemaker, and cook. All of Shore's previous identities came into play in her Dinah's Place and her later syndicated version of the show, Dinah!, which ran from 1974 to 1980.
A blend of talk, music, home improvement, and cooking tips,54 her talk show also highlighted her domestic role. Dinah's Place, produced with long-term business agent Henry Jaffe, aired at 10:00 a.m. It was addressed primarily to a female audience and gave tips on how to stay attractive, young, and beautiful, and how to cook special recipes, diet, sew clothes, apply makeup, and take care of husbands and children in a modern world. The set was modeled on Dinah Shore's own Beverly Hills living room and kitchen.55 Though some critics were not terribly excited about the show, it developed a loyal following. The show was as much a ''do show'' as a ''talk show,'' Shore said, naming the activities of some of the celebrities who had appeared. ''Ethel Kennedy played the piano. Joanne Woodward did some beautiful needlepoint. Cliff Robertson made a linguine . . . Leslie Uggams made sweet potato pie . . . Senator Muskie hypnotized a lobster.''56 She felt that the social movements of the 1960s had encouraged ''the thinking that the young people have put on us today—that there's a terrible impermanence in the world,'' but she generally avoided political and religious controversy. Occasionally she would have on her show ''heavier'' guests, like scientist/peace activist Linus Pauling or Ms. Magazine editor Gloria Steinem, and she generally handled these more serious guests with aplomb. But when Steinem was on the show, Shore was taken aback by the anger of some of the women in the audience toward men. ''I don't understand this violence,'' she said. ''We're in the world together, you know. ... If women have been exploited it's been a collaborative effort and not a giant conspiracy on the part of men. Being a homemaker is a lovely, marvelous role and only denigrating if you yourself make it that way.''57
Shore, like Arlene Francis in the 1950s and Barbara Walters in the 1970s, represented a series of contradictions. A woman who was ambitious and headstrong, and who had by all accounts achieved four highly successful show-business careers, earning a star's salary approaching a million dollars and with nineteen golden records, credited it all to others. Acknowledging her first pianist and arranger, Ticker Freeman, her producer, Henry Jaffe, her husband, and other men who had given her her first breaks in show business, she said, ''All of my life, on radio, in recording studios, in films and on television, men have made the decisions for me, and they've usually been the right ones.''58 At the same time Shore herself was a hard-driving perfectionist who knew what she wanted in each case and clearly directed her own career. However much she relied on close advisors, America's girl-next-door had engineered her own success. Hosting her own national talk shows over a ten-year period, from ages fifty-three to sixty-three, Shore proved that it was not just younger women who could command a national audience in daytime talk, and that the palette of women hosts on the air could include one who operated as a traditional hostess from her own living room.
Was this article helpful?