On August 11, 1997, a daytime talk show made its premiere on ABC. To say it was a different world, both inside and outside of the TV industry, would be a vast understatement.
President Bill Clinton was in the White House, only half a year into his second term; nobody knew the name "Monica Lewinsky" yet; the top-rated shows on primetime TV were ER and Seinfeld; the #1 song in the country was "I'll Be Missing You," Puff Daddy's elegy to the late Notorious B.I.G.; the #1 movie in the country was the Mel Gibson/Julia Roberts thriller Conspiracy Theory; Titanic wouldn't come out for another four months.
The daytime TV landscape was even more starkly different back then. Just two months earlier, ABC had debuted the General Hospital spinoff soap Port Charles, making it four daytime soaps for the alphabet network. Overall, there were eleven daytime soaps in active production in the summer of 1997, a high water mark for the genre. Today there are only four (and one of them, Days of Our Lives, is leaving NBC for Peacock next month).
Then there were the talk shows. Daytime talk was divided into three general realms: the hot-button, controversy-driven shows hosted by the likes of Ricki Lake, Montel Williams, and Jerry Springer; the celebrity-friendly talk and variety shows like The Rosie O'Donnell Show, which premiered the previous summer; and Oprah Winfrey, who existed in a class by herself, borrowing from both formats and elevating them through sheer force of her personality.
What daytime didn't have was a show that was anything like The View, and Barbara Walters set out to plant her flag squarely in that void. As Walters said right at the top of the pilot episode — and the show's opening voiceover would repeatedly remind us — The View was the show that Walters had long wanted to make: "a show with women of different generations, backgrounds and views."
At a time when daytime talk shows were built around one central personality, The View would be built around an idea: that a multigenerational group of women could provide a valuable and relatable perspective on the world. And for as much as Walters would, through the years, relish her role as The View's grande dame, that mission statement was one she seemed to sincerely believe in.
"Deep breath, everybody, deep breath," Meredith Vieira said at the top of The View's inaugural episode. Gathered were four of the show's flagship co-hosts — Joy Behar, the stand-up comedian who "has done almost everything and will say almost anything," was originally cast to fill Walters' seat on the days when her obligations to ABC News and 20/20 kept her away.
There was Vieira ("a working mom"), Star Jones ("a professional in her '30s), and Debbie Matenopoulos ("a 22-year-old just starting out"), plus Walters herself. For as much as the show would evolve from this first episode, that tableau of different women seated around the table remains the show's true constant.
That first episode sure was a sign of the times, though. The first ever Hot Topic discussed on the show was about John F. Kennedy, Jr., then the publisher of George magazine, who had made headlines for a comment he'd made about some of his more notorious cousins, whose indiscretions and infidelities had made them, as John-John put it, "poster boys for bad behavior." The discussion that followed showed each of the four co-hosts' personalities in microcosm.
Vieira, the consummate newswoman, zeroed in on the fact that Kennedy's quote was taken out of context. Jones, ever the lawyer, made sure that every mention of a Kennedy family member's indiscretions was accompanied by the word "allegedly." Matenopoulos, the kid at the table in way over her head, went right to a reference of Drew Barrymore on the cover of George dressed up as Marilyn Monroe.
As the topics wound from the "summer of infidelity" — recent cheaters in the news had been Rudy Giuliani, Frank Gifford, Bill Cosby [*gulp*], and of course Bill Clinton — to guest Tom Selleck to a relationship-advice segment, each of the co-hosts remained exactly in her element, and that was a big part of The View's early success: beyond the topics and the interviews, each of the women established their own distinct archetypes from day one.
Walters's archetype was the one she'd built over decades: the news anchor with a penchant for big-fish interviews. After showing a clip from an interview with Selleck in 1989, she relayed an anecdote about how, at his request, she didn't report on the fact that his wife was pregnant, a preview of the celebrity-friendly slant she'd put on all stories going forward.
It's illuminating to watch this first episode and see what worked and what clearly didn't. Certain segments felt like what you'd come up with in a brainstorm for a new TV show — most specifically the "Question of the Day," which in this case was a back-of-the-magazine conversation starter about what you'd save if your home was on fire — but which fell flat on the show, even if getting Tom Selleck to admit he'd go for his shotgun over family photographs would end up foreshadowing his contentious segment on The Rosie O'Donnell Show about gun rights and the NRA years later.
The worst was the segment with the relationship expert, a series of "dos" and "don'ts" for women who want to communicate better with their husbands that repeatedly played on stereotypes about nagging wives and their disinterested, football-watching husbands. Aside from being incredibly dated sentiments, it was also an example of the direction The View evolved away from as it moved further and further into headlines, politics, and scandals.
Growing pains aside, though, there's a recognizable core at the center of The View's pilot episode. If nothing else, the episode is a testament to the fact that no matter the wide range of topics, no matter how they were packaged, The View was always more about who we were getting the information from than what was being talked about. 25 years later, that remains true.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.