Meredith Vieira is the rare TV personality who can do whatever she wants. Her 40-year career has included network news (“60 Minutes” and “West 57th” on CBS, ABC’s “Turning Point” and NBC’s “Today”), daytime talk (“The View,” “The Meredith Vieira Show”) and a dozen years as a quizmaster (“Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”). Along the way, Vieira, 65, became an icon for working mothers, balancing career decisions with her commitment to family life.
Having a few laughs is also a priority, which is why she returns to TV on Sept. 16 as the host of “25 Words Or Less,” a new daytime show based on the popular board game with teams of celebrity and civilian contestants competing for cash. The show from Lisa Kudrow’s Is Or Isn’t Entertainment will air on Fox-owned TV stations across the country including KTTV in Los Angeles.
You’ve always been a game show fan.
I have. When I was offered “Millionaire” by [producer] Michael Davies, I had friends who said, “Why are you doing that?” And I said “Because I like it. I’m not ashamed of it. I think it’s cool. I’m giving people money, and it’s not mine.” What’s better than that?
There aren’t a lot of serious TV journalists able to pull that off.
I thought what made me an effective host was the fact that I was a journalist — I knew how to draw contestants out. I knew how to relax them. I knew how to ask them questions. I knew how to listen. And all those things are important even in a show like that. People walk in so nervous to a game. There’s a lot on the line for them. And you just have to remind them “It’s a safe place, it’s good — tell me about you.” And then they relax and then they play the best game they can.
Game shows can get very physical. People get excited and hug each other. Now, we’re in the age where you have to ask permission. Do they need intimacy coordinators on a game show set?
I have no idea about that. I’m a hugger; that’s just who I am. So it hasn’t come up in front of me. I think you know where the line is. But if George Clooney won on our show, all bets would be off.
Have you asked him to come on the show?
No. Now, he’ll never come on.
You were the original moderator of ABC’s “The View.” Are you surprised about the place show has taken in the country’s political discourse?
Cut to the New York Times article, yeah.
They called it the most important political TV show in America. Is that true?
I don’t know. For somebody who’s getting back into television I don’t watch a lot of TV. I’ll see the clips, like a lot of people do. I’m thrilled that “The View” continues to be relevant and reinvent itself. And quite frankly those political candidates would not come on that show unless they felt there was a real need to be on that show. So they’ve touched a chord with people in this country, for sure, and it’s become sort of a must-do for those candidates.
Why is there so much more yelling on the show than there was when you were there?
Well, I’m not a yeller. I think discourse in general on television has become that way — a lot of fire, a lot of heat. When I was hosting, it was all about no crosstalk. Let somebody have their say and then the next person. But now that’s kind of part of the mishegoss that’s part of the game.
Do you think about getting back into TV news in any significant way?
No. I never say never, but I’m not looking for it. Right now, I don’t want to be part of that. I find the times right now very difficult and depressing.
What do friends of yours in the business say about it?
They find it very frustrating, because this lack of trust in the media that’s been brewing and fermented by certain folks. It has made it very hard to do your job, because your integrity is constantly being questioned. And there are so many journalists who are people of integrity. And to have them painted with this broad brush is extremely difficult for folks.
You had a close workplace friendship with Matt Lauer. What was it like for you to see him taken down by the #MeToo movement and fired by NBC for inappropriate sexual behavior?
It was very difficult, because — and I think I speak for so many people — I never would’ve expected it. And it was heartbreaking. I was in L.A. [when Lauer was fired in November 2017], and my phone started going crazy at 4 in the morning. And I’m thinking, what the hell’s going on? I found out in the middle of my night.
And you were surprised by it?
Yes, I was. This was a guy that I thought I knew. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in television. There are people who have affairs. This was a different level; this wasn’t that.
Have you remained friends with him? Have you talked with him at all?
Do you think he’ll ever come back to TV?
I would bet not. I don’t think television drove him; I really don’t. I don’t think he felt, “If I’m not on TV, then, my life is useless.” He had a restaurant that he invested in, and he had the horses. And I think he probably loved a lot of the stories that he told, but I never felt it just totally defined him.
You also worked at “60 Minutes” during its years as a boys’ club.
Yes, I did. Do I bring this stuff on?
But your issues there were very public at the time. You were the youngest correspondent ever hired by the program in 1989, and you walked away two years later to have your second child when then-executive producer Don Hewitt would not let you work part-time. It was a big statement. Do women remember this?
I just had a young woman say, “Thank you for the message you sent to working mothers.” I would not have expected it — this was a young woman who knows the story. And I don’t sit around talking about it, but, yeah, I hope that it somehow had gotten into the DNA.
Can you imagine someone today saying the kind of things about you that Don Hewitt said back then?
I don’t think you could get away with it today. And also that was Don Hewitt. I mean, he was the king. “60 Minutes” was the crown jewel in the network. And so he could probably do no wrong. He was a very, very powerful man. And I made my peace with Don after … I’ve said this before — but, it was two parents fighting against each other — me with my kid then, and pregnant with Gabe, and Don with his baby, “60 Minutes.” And that really was what it was, that we both felt so strongly about our “kid.”
So Gayle King has a big job at “CBS This Morning.” Jane Pauley is the host of “CBS Sunday Morning.” You keep getting shows. It doesn’t seem like women in their 60s were getting these kind of opportunities 10 years ago.
We didn’t. And I still think there is a certain element of, you know, women of a certain age — I can’t stand that expression — being shelved. I remember when I was 30-something, or 40-something, a friend of mine said — “Oh, there was a news director the other day saying, ‘We want Meredith Vieira only younger.’ ” She thought it was funny. It’s a very visual medium obviously. If you’re experienced and you’re good at what you do, why not? The men have been doing it forever.