When Barbara Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky for that special episode of 20/20 back in 1999, a total of 74 million Americans tuned in to ABC to watch.
Seventy four million. That was one quarter of the entire U.S. population at the time. The interview averaged a 48 share, meaning that nearly half of all TV sets in use at the time were watching Walters.
By now much has been written about Walters’ groundbreaking career at NBC and ABC, in the mornings on Today and in the evenings on the ABC Evening News. She changed how TV news anchors were paid (today’s 8-figure deals would not exist had Walters not paved the way) and transformed daytime TV with The View.
But the news anchor, who died Friday at the age of 93, also fundamentally changed a core piece of the TV journalism repertoire: The interview.
Walters took the newsworthy interview and turned it into an event. Must-see TV.
Her skill and preparation, combined with her unmatched ability to snag big “gets” took one of the most common and banal TV news formats and made it water cooler conversation. Instead of interviews taking up 5 minutes of a morning show or evening newscast, or perhaps a longer segment on Sunday mornings, they would take up an entire hour of primetime network TV, where they were up against football, dramas and sitcoms.
And Walters’ primetime interviews frequently won their time slots, with moments from those conversations becoming cultural touchstones.
Her Peabody-winning 1995 interview with actor Christopher Reeve (his first since a horseback riding accident left him paralyzed) garnered a 36 share, with more than a third of all TV sets that hour tuning in. Reeve, who Walters interviewed a few more times until his death in 2004, used the interviews to advocate for the rights of disabled people.
Her interviews with Fidel Castro were unlike anything Americans had seen on TV before, with the Cuban dictator acting as tour guide at the Bay of Pigs and in the Cuban mountains where his rebellion was born.
But she never held back, always willing to ask direct, pointed questions. Whether it was Russia’s Vladimir Putin in 2001 (asking whether he had ever ordered anyone to be killed), or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad (asking whether he thought he was the next dictator to be killed or overthrown by his people), Walters secured interviews with powerful figures that others couldn’t snag and asked the tough questions others wouldn’t ask. And Americans watched.
But she was just as effortless when interviewing the powerful at home. Her primetime interviews with Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter became the template for what is now a relatively common fixture on TV: The presidential profile.
And her interviews with the famous and infamous still reverberate to this day.
When actress Katherine Hepburn told Walters that she sometimes sees herself as a tree, Walters responded quickly with “what kind of tree are you, if you think you’re a tree?” And her interview with boxer Mike Tyson and his then-wife Robin Givens saw Givens tell Walters that she was “very, very afraid” of her husband when he was angry. She filed for a divorce a month later.
At The View she brought that dynamic to daytime TV, always willing to let a newsworthy interview run long, while allowing her co-panelists to team up and grill the day’s guest.
But while the primetime news-maker interview has not disappeared (in just the last few months ABC’s 20/20 ran interviews with Michelle Obama and Matthew Perry, among others), they simply aren’t the cultural moments that they were when Walters was in the room.
That’s why its newsworthy when a primetime interview breaks through the clutter (for example, Oprah Winfrey’s 2021 interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, which drew 17 million viewers, a ho-hum number by Walters’ standards but a huge smash in today’s world).
And with everything other than live news, sports and entertainment going to streaming services first, the days of the interview as water cooler fodder may be nearing their end. When George Stephanopoulos scored the first interview with ex-British spy Christopher Steele, he ran a segment on his Sunday show, and saved the hourlong special for Hulu.
When Casey Anthony decided to give her first interview since being acquitted for the murder of her daughter more than a decade ago, she did it for a Peacock docuseries.
Walters was a trailblazer, but her contributions to TV news were far more everlasting. The formats she created are everywhere (Fox News Channel’s most-watched show in 2022 was The Five, a panel show featuring a format very similar to that of The View).
But just as she helped create the interview-as-event, her retirement in 2014 marked the beginning of the end for the format.
It will never go away entirely, but only Walters could get all of America to tune in.