When I talked to Barbara Walters for a story for last Sunday's Herald, she was pretty blunt about why she left 20/20 after a quarter of a century: the eternal, infernal pressure for "the get," the big interview -- particularly the Parises and Britneys and Lindsays of the world. "The fact that it’s mostly celebrities out of rehab that’s interesting to people," Walters told me, ticking off the reasons TV news magazines are headed in a direction she didn't want to go. "The fact that it’s 18 to 49 where our ratings come from, all of that plays a part. And now the Internet, blogs, cable, YouTube, it’s a whole other industry."
If there was a moment that summed it all up, she said, it was the final interview she did for 20/20 in September 2004. Walters trying to get President Bush, then locked in a bare-knuckle race for reelection against John Kerry. ABC told her instead to talk to former schoolteacher Mary Kay Letourneau, just out of prison for having sex with one of her students.
"People are not interested in heads of state," Walters said. "It’s not a big coup to get an interview with a president or a politician. We are much more celebrity-oriented. In part it’s because of the 18 to 49 [demographic], attracting younger viewers." Even on the specials that she continues to do four times a year, she has trouble getting ABC's attention for political stories. "The last time I interviewed a head of state was what, a year ago, Hugo Chavez, who people are interested in because he’s like another Fidel
Castro," Walters noted. "And he had done no interviews. But there’s just not the interest in it, in general."
Still, she doesn't necessarily share the conventional wisdom that network news is a dinosaur lumbering toward the tar pits.
"People have been announcing the death of network news now for at least the past five years," she said. "But there still seems to be an audience. There still seems to be an audience for network [news] programming. Somehow or other, they’re still going."
And if she were starting out her career all over again, Walters says, she'd probably still go into TV news.
"The good thing is that there’s so much more opportunity for women now," she said. "In front of the cameras, behind the cameras, even as executive producers. So I’m sure I would be [interested in TV]. But the difference is that if I was on top of the game, I was also ahead of the game. I had no mentors. There was certainly a glass ceiling. There were very few opportunities for women. You had a terrible struggle.
"Today there is much less of a struggle. But there is also much more competition. It’s a wonderful field. And you have to work very hard. You did when I was doing it, and you do today. A lot of travel, a lot of long hours, but it’s a wonderful field. And there are so many women when you turn [TV news] on. You almost can’t listen to a program that doesn’t have a woman on it. That’s great. When I see all the young women who made it and they say you paved the way, that’s my reward. I’m terribly proud if I made even a little difference. Not just in television but maybe for women in general. What a reward."