Barbara Walters’ decision to step away from “20/20” promises a new pecking order in the competition she’s dominated for decades — for prime-time, celebrity TV interviews.
Starting in September, Walters will no longer be co-host of ABC’s “20/20,” the newsmagazine she’s called home since 1979.
Walters, 74, will do about six interview specials a year for ABC News, including her annual pre-Oscar show. She’ll also stay as executive producer and occasional co-host of “The View,” the daytime talk show she created.
“Because there are so many shows on and because I’ve been so hands-on — I’ve had a piece on almost every single week — I don’t know how to cut back on that,” she said Monday. “You really can’t.”
ABC hasn’t publicly discussed a replacement; Elizabeth Vargas would be one obvious possibility. John Stossel is Walters’ current co-host.
A Barbara Walters interview, often done with a soft-focus camera and subjects who break into tears, is as much a part of television news lore as Mike Wallace inducing someone to sweat on “60 Minutes.”
The bagging of a big celebrity interview has become an increasingly important attention-getting device for newsmagazines, which have faded somewhat in influence with the popularity of reality TV.
Walters isn’t unbeatable, but she’s known as a relentless competitor and is often the first interviewer a celebrity considers for a prime-time Q-and-A. During the past year, she spoke to a post-indictment Martha Stewart and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Her March 1999 interview with Monica Lewinsky drew a staggering 48.5 million viewers.
At ABC, Walters’ decision clears a path for her chief in-house competitor, Diane Sawyer, who was the sounding board for last week’s prime-time appearance by Howard Dean and his wife.
Robin Roberts and Lara Spencer of “Good Morning America” may also pick up some of the slack at ABC.
Role model for many
Katie Couric has been molded into NBC’s version of Walters over the past few years, while Pat O’Brien of “Access Hollywood” has also done some celebrity-oriented interview for NBC.
“The type of person that used to go to Barbara Walters might be inclined to go to (CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent) Ed Bradley,” said Andrew Tyndall, head of ADT Research, which monitors the content of newsmagazines. “He changed his image somewhat with the Michael Jackson interview, for better or ill.”
ABC might fiddle with the format of “20/20” to make it less dependent on big interviews.
“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t confess to a moment or two of concern over losing Barbara Walters’ weekly presence on one of our most important programs,” ABC News President David Westin said in a memo to his staff.
But he said he’s confident in Walters’ judgment and the program’s strength.
Walters said she’s known for about a year she wanted to step down, but waited for the right time to annouce so the news wouldn’t detract from her Clinton and Stewart interviews.
“20/20” is averaging just under 10 million viewers a week this season, up from 8.8 million last year.
“‘I wanted to leave when ‘20/20’ was very strong and, truthfully, I wanted to walk away on the top,” she said.
Walters was co-host of NBC’s “Today” show for 13 years before joining ABC News in 1976, where she was the first woman to anchor a network evening newscast.
Walters said she’s felt the pressure in recent years from television’s ardent pursuit of the 18-to-49-year-old demographic, which means a greater push for interviews with entertainers popular with younger viewers.
But it’s not her reason for leaving the newsmagazine, she said.
“It’s not because the audience is younger,” she said. “It’s not because there’s more competition and it’s not because I can’t do the head of state from — I don’t know — Pakistan. I really wanted to have more flexibility in my life and this gives me everything I could possibly want.”