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O’Donnell’s ‘View’ exit threatens ABC’s gains

Times Staff Writer

And then there were three.

Rosie O’Donnell’s decision to exit “The View” at the end of this season will leave Barbara Walters, Joy Behar and Elisabeth Hasselbeck to tussle at the show’s table. Her departure threatens to stall the momentum of the ABC gabfest, just as it was emerging as one of the top five daytime programs on broadcast television.

Since replacing Meredith Vieira as the show’s moderator in September, O’Donnell’s provocative and often polarizing remarks have given the decade-old program a new charge, helping boost the talk show’s ratings 17% so far this season. Last quarter, an average 3.8 million viewers tuned in, the biggest audience in the program’s history.

O’Donnell’s announcement Wednesday that she will leave in June because of a contract dispute forces ABC to substantially reconstitute the program’s all-female panel, which has been without a permanent fifth co-host since Star Jones Reynolds’ acrimonious departure last season.

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“They’ve got a big job,” said Bonnie Fuller, chief editorial director of American Media Inc.'s Star magazine. “I think they need to have somebody who is going to bring a big personality to replace her because there’s going to be a void.”

Fuller, who watches the show, added: “Some people may have felt it was too controversial, but it made great TV. Everyone was talking about ‘The View.’ ”

O’Donnell’s interplay with her co-hosts -- especially her political debates with Hasselbeck, the only conservative in the group -- brought a sense of renewed vigor to the on-air discussions that industry veterans said would be difficult to replicate.

“You are such, I can’t say it enough, such a catalyst,” Hasselbeck told O’Donnell during Wednesday’s show. “I think that because of that we’ve really just taken off the shackles and really just had some purely honest conversation here.”

Hasselbeck, Walters and Behar listened with downcast expressions as O’Donnell said that she and ABC could not agree on the terms of her next contract.

“They wanted me three years, I wanted one year,” said O’Donnell, whose last day will be June 21. “It just didn’t work. And that’s showbiz, but it’s not sad because I’ve loved it here and I love you guys.”

The 45-year-old comedian -- whose tenure on “The View” has sharply raised her stock and generated talk of her hosting her own daytime show again -- did not say what her next project would be, aside from returning occasionally as a guest host. She also plans to do specials on autism, depression and other topics for ABC and post regularly on her blog.

Walters, the show’s co-executive producer, who had persuaded O’Donnell to come aboard for a year, said she had hoped to keep O’Donnell on longer and stressed that her departure was “not my doing or my choice.”

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“We have not thought about a replacement because we were hoping that you would come back,” she told O’Donnell.

ABC executives declined to discuss the show’s future, but have said that they’re confident the program will continue to thrive.

“I was told the show was dead a year ago” when Vieira left for NBC, executive producer Bill Geddie said in a recent interview. “We’ve proved them wrong. ‘The View’ is a great concept and as long as we continue to put interesting people in those seats and make sure the mix is good, it will be a strong show for years to come.”

During her time on “The View,” O’Donnell’s steady stream of blunt talk put an enormous spotlight on the program, making it a water-cooler staple. She feuded with Donald Trump after calling him a “snake-oil salesman,” mimicked the Chinese language and -- perhaps most controversially -- suggested that the World Trade Center’s Building 7 was brought down with explosives on Sept. 11, 2001.

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On Wednesday, after announcing her departure, O’Donnell quickly segued into a lively political discussion, renewing her call for the impeachment of President Bush.

“It will be important to find someone who, while not the same as Rosie, has a similar ability to give viewers a reason to make ‘The View’ part of their media menu,” said John Rash, director of broadcast negotiations for Campbell Mithun, an ad firm headquartered in Minneapolis.

“As contentious and controversial as she became, it gave the show some immediacy that it previously lacked,” he said.

While ABC wrestles with how to replace her, O’Donnell now has more options than ever. Syndicators have floated the idea of her headlining her own daytime talk show again, while others have suggested that she launch a late-night program, perhaps on Fox or HBO.

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Cindi Berger, O’Donnell’s spokeswoman, said the comedian had not yet decided her next move.

“I think she’s got a lot of options ahead of her and she just has to cherry pick and decide what makes her happy and artistically fulfilled,” she said.

O’Donnell’s decision to leave the program was strongly influenced by her desire to spend more time with the four children she has with partner Kelli Carpenter O’Donnell and her reluctance to make a three-year commitment to a job that would take her away from them, Berger said.

O’Donnell also told viewers Wednesday that her youngest daughter urged her “to get rid of” the show after they had been repeatedly approached by fans during a recent trip to the mall. At a family meeting, the children voted for her not to go back.

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Fans bemoaned her decision on O’Donnell’s blog, posting messages lamenting the fact that she would be off the air and urging her to find another prominent platform. The comedian replied that aside from continuing a recurring guest role on FX’s “Nip/Tuck” in the fall, she does not yet have plans, although she said that “late night interests me.”

“Who knows/life awaits,” O’Donnell wrote in her usual free verse.

matea.gold@latimes.com


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