Television: The View At The Top

Three years ago, Barbara Walters created a new kind of daytime show for a new kind of daytime audience. Now the five opinionated women of The View have given morning talk a makeover

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Poor George Stephanopoulos is surrounded by vaginas. This April morning, four of The View's co-hosts are grilling the squirming ex-politico and ABC commentator about Donna Hanover, New York City's first lady, and her decision--later rescinded--to appear in the play The Vagina Monologues. Clearly they're enjoying his palpable male discomfort with the repetitions of the V word. "I got in trouble on Good Morning America this morning for saying that word," he pleads. "There's four of them right here!" shoots back Star Jones, as the audience--almost all female--goes nuts.

You'd think leaving the Clinton Administration would shield you from such talk. But this kind of banter, even (especially!) when there's a sex angle, is by now routine on The View (ABC, weekdays, 11 a.m. E.T.). Now in its third year, this estrogenic round table and its five outspoken hosts have made the morning safe for spicy, topical dialogue and the occasional lap dance. In a traditionally abysmal time slot for ABC, the show has seen its ratings rise 50% from a weak start; it's been imitated by other talk shows; and it scored 12 nominations, the most of any talk show, for this week's daytime Emmys (where host-producer-founder Barbara Walters will receive a lifetime achievement award).

Lunching on cold cuts after the show, the hosts, like many observers, credit The View's success to Walters' central concept: five women of disparate ages and ethnicities provocatively kicking around topics from the morning's papers. Like a team of superheroes or Spice Girls, each has her specialty, niche and demographic. There's Chinese-American reporter (and Old Navy pitchwoman) Lisa Ling, 26; African-American attorney and diva Star Jones, 38; Portuguese-American journalist and working mom Meredith Vieira, 46; Italian-American comedian Joy Behar, 54; and Barbara Walters, 68, who is Barbara Walters. As Jones puts it, View-style, "We're five women, and one is bound to piss you off."

But as important as the hosts' chemistry is their understanding of their audience. Previous morning shows were aimed at permanent housewives, offering a simulated coffee hour of chitchat in a fake living room with fake neighbors. The View recognizes that its viewers--still 72% female--include part-timers, telecommuters and maternity-leavers. Trying to get through the day without murdering the kids, they want to escape not to a surrogate home but to a surrogate office.

Enter the View crew, a band of women you'd never mistake for a family, except for the ersatz ones we encounter at work; the signature opening Hot Topics segment could be a coffee-break bull session in a white-collar office. The show defies the received wisdom that female daytime-TV viewers are interested only in innocuous chat or in Springer-style scandal shows. "You may say the show's not that smart," says co-executive producer Bill Geddie. "But for daytime, we are absolutely the Library of Congress."

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