The retirement of Barbara Walters from regular appearances on TV might seem like one of those retirement announcements that don’t add up to real retirement. Despite not being on TV daily on “The View” any longer, Walters will still be involved with television when she wants to be, probably right up into her 90s. And while everyone celebrated her history-making achievements this month as one of the most successful women in news and broadcasting, it seems that she’d rather forget about one part of her career. The time she co-hosted the nightly news on ABC became one of the strangest moments in TV history.
If you know the history of network news, then you know about Barbara Walters being hired to co-host the evening news on ABC with then anchor Harry Reasoner. This was in 1976 after Walters had been a popular co-host on “The Today Show” for well over a decade. Now she was poised to make even more history as the first woman to at least co-host a network newscast. The timing seemed right as feminism was allowing women to finally do things they should have been doing decades earlier.
ABC should have realized that the older generation of men still had a 1950s sensibility about them when it came to a woman’s role. Harry Reasoner immediately balked at the idea of having to host the evening news with a woman. Even if Walters has said that she was friends with Reasoner beforehand and that he never disliked her personally, the evening news was an all-male club in those days. It made for an uncomfortable pairing that showed through to people watching at home.
Walters herself has noted how cold her treatment was on the set, proving that trying to break the gender barrier was going to be a mountain to climb during an important time. ABC could see the lack of chemistry between Reasoner and Walters on camera and broke up the pairing not long after. We didn’t see the networks try a male-female pairing of the evening news again until Connie Chung teamed up with Dan Rather on CBS in the 1990s. The aforementioned pairing also failed, not because of any dissension, but because there wasn’t much chemistry.
Why is it that male-female pairings for news only seem to work on local TV and not on network newscasts? Even cable newscasts have managed to pair a male and female together without causing issues or lack of witty repartee.
Are Network News Organizations Still Stuck with Traditions?
While network TV news has finally made inroads to allowing women as head anchors, it seems to have slipped after Katie Couric left CBS. Now that Diane Sawyer keeps talking about retiring at some point soon, it seems network news will go back to being an all-male club again before the end of the decade. There also isn’t any incentive to want to pair a male and female together there either, perhaps out of fear of tinkering with their format. With networks always running scared of losing ratings to cable news, it may explain why there aren’t any male-female pairings there any more.
Regardless, is it really necessary to do such pairings, or does it just send some kind of forced message of gender equality? As cable news gives plenty of shows for women to host, network news still seems a different story to this day. There may be a tradition at network news to keep it a male club as if some kind of Skull & Bones society that reaches back 60 years. The same applies to the late-night TV arena as we continually see recently.
Network news might be able to learn something from local TV news who frequently pair up a male and female anchor team. In almost every market, the chemistry is usually perfect and sometimes hilarious in their witty interactions. It’s a type of style network news needs in order to get away from the stuffed shirt mentality.
Ultimately, chemistry like that could have blossomed early had Reasoner and Walters managed to be like they were off camera 40 years ago. Instead, they built a metaphorical wall between them that has yet to be officially torn down.