by pat howard

INSIDE THE BOX | Honesty: O’Donnell’s biggest asset was also her greatest liability

In ABC, The View on June 2, 2007 at 10:57 pm

For ten years, she was America’s daytime sweetheart. The Queen of Nice had her loyal subjects who tuned into her talk show each day to see smiles and banter, celebrity interviews and silly audience games, complete with Koosh balls. The nation indulged — nay, embraced — her love of Broadway, her devotion to children, and her silly schoolgirl crush on Tom Cruise. But this twee persona wasn’t exactly the whole truth.

In 2002, Rosie O’Donnell took the opportunity to be honest about herself, her life and her reality. In the final months of her phenomenally popular eponymous daytime talk show, O’Donnell came out of the closet, went on the record in support of gay adoption in Florida and published a memoir.

Once the show wrapped, she went back on the comedy circuit sporting a radical new ‘do and declared, “The bitch ain’t so nice anymore!” The backlash began almost immediately. The former Queen of Nice, it turned out, wasn’t perky all the time. She was human, with a full gamut of emotions, experiences and ideas, but she no longer fit into the marketing box that propelled her talk show to the top of the ratings. People weren’t quite sure what to do with her now.

This newfound sense of confusion toward O’Donnell was perhaps only compounded by the very public implosion of Rosie magazine (and a subsequent lawsuit) and the tanking of a Broadway musical about Boy George, “Taboo.” Rosie retreated from the limelight, but this was not the last we’d see of her.

She started a free-verse blog at rosie.com, chronicling her daily life and her opinions on the world around her. She continued her charity work as she always had. Soon, she debuted R Family Vacations, a cruise line for gay couples and their children. O’Donnell, her partner Kelli Carpenter, and their four children are often among the guest list.

Last year, HBO aired a documentary about the new venture called “All Aboard! Rosie’s Family Cruise.” Barbara Walters saw the documentary and asked Rosie if she’d be interested in returning to daytime television on The View. Rosie said yes and the two announced the news together at last year’s Daytime Emmys.

In September, Rosie made her View debut as moderator of the decade-old coffee club, filling the seat vacated by Meredith Viera. And a new era began on The View. Rosie brought elements of her old show to this one — giveaways for the studio audience and Broadway musical performances, for example — but this was definitely a different animal.

Rosie joined Walters, Joy Behar and Elisabeth Hasselback behind the glass table at the ABC Television Center. The seat vacated in a very public blowout between Walters and Star Jones remained unfilled, but a rotation of guest hosts kept the show going on the many days Barbara was not on the panel. From the beginning, it was clear that the always-chipper Rosie from the days of her own show was no more. This was honest Rosie, who said what she thought and pulled no punches.

The hot topics segment that began each View quickly doubled in size as the debates between the ladies became more and more popular with viewers. Conflict makes for good television, after all, and O’Donnell found a sparring partner in conservative co-panelist Hasselback. The two went head-to-head about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on a number of occasions.

But O’Donnell explored other issues as well, including depression, autism and breast cancer, which were among the topics featured in special editions of The View throughout the season. These were the kinds of topics she’d wanted to cover in her magazine, the real life stories she felt were important to share. She took advantage of the platform she’d been given and used network television as a tool to educate, a radical proposition in this day and age.

O’Donnell’s honesty cropped up in other ways as well. She often chided Walters about her, for lack of a better word, hoity-toityness. Walters, best known for her fluffy Oscar specials and tear-inducing celebrity interviews, tries to project a certain image of herself. O’Donnell’s discussions about her lavish lifestyle, high society friends and bizarre eating habits exposed a less pleasant side of Walters than that to which viewers had been accustomed.

It wasn’t long before rumors of off-air tension were all over the tabloids and the New York media. The ladies and their handlers tended to deny that there was any ill will backstage, but as the on-air sparring matches continued, so did the rumors.

And then the feuds began. When O’Donnell shared an unflattering fact about one of Donald Trump’s business interests in December, the two began duking it out in various forms of the media, with Trump doing some nasty name-calling. This was, perhaps, the beginning of the end. When she reminded America of the sexual harassment lawsuit against Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly, he went ballistic and began a series of baseless (or misrepresented) attacks on her, calling for ABC to give her the boot. When she took Fox to task for exploiting handicapped American Idol contestants during televised audition episodes, the network refused The View‘s requests for unrelated clips of the show (Fox eventually relented).

At every turn, O’Donnell and a home audience saw that honesty had its consequences. Television, it seemed, was no place for honesty. But, having presumably learned her lesson about compromising her truth for a few million dollars, she soldiered on. She was one of few consistently antiwar voices in the media, a counterbalance to the conservative spin of the Fox News Channel. It was that very rhetoric, in fact, that brought her tenure on The View to an abrupt end a few weeks ahead of schedule.

On the morning of Wednesday, May 23, Joy Behar began a hot topics segment by listing off a number of shortcomings of the Bush administration. Hasselback, as always, took up for Bush and dug in for a battle. O’Donnell jumped into the fray with her comments, and before long, she and Hasselback were in a very heated argument. The segment went on for nearly nine minutes, degenerating into personal territory and despite repeated attempts by Behar and guest panelist Sherri Shepherd to defuse the confrontation and take a commercial break.

It was, after all, the last day of the May sweeps period, and conflict supposedly brings big ratings. Toward the end of the argument, the show employed a split screen of the two ladies arguing, and according to O’Donnell, that’s when she knew her time at the show was over. She finished out the hour, and it was in fact her last live appearance on The View. The next day, before Walters and the gang knew she’d asked to be let out of her contract, the Godmother did her best to smooth things over.

But it didn’t quite wash. Walters’ mea culpas throughout the season never seemed sincere, certainly not as sincere as the on-air events that precipitated them. And that Walters constantly felt the need to apologize for the views of these women while simultaneously reminding America that this was a place for them to express their views is perhaps the best illustration of the illusions of honesty and forthrightness at the heart of this show. O’Donnell, for her part, remained upfront with her fans, posting free verse and video blogs and answering viewer questions about the situation on her website.

Daytime television is no place for such honesty. From the soft news, lifestyle stories and “reality” show contestants on the network morning shows to the brouhahas, brawls and baby daddies of Maury and Jerry Springer, it’s all an act and entertainment is the name of the game. The View will go on, to be sure, though I won’t be surprised if its ratings return to the cellar they occupied for the decade before Rosie joined the panel.

But television has not seen the last of Rosie O’Donnell. She hasn’t decided what her next project will be. In the meantime, she’ll have her uncensored forum online. There’s quite a bit of talk about her returning to daytime, but that is at least a year away. If and when she does, it will be on her terms, hopefully as honest and earnest as the energy she devotes to her family, her hobbies, her charities and her website.

Always one to shake things up, O’Donnell can write her own ticket and bring honest discussion — not split-screen shouting matches — to daytime television. She’s revitalized the format twice now, and as the saying goes, third time’s a charm.

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  1. What a shame. Rosie will be missed by all. I hope she comes back she added so much to the show and was the reason I watched because she was so intelligent in her views. I am sure she will be missed.

    A messages for Rosie: Come back and fight for everyone who shares your opinions. Although I like the other cast members you just added life. I will miss you, you made me laugh. COME BACK PLEASE………………….let sleeping dogs lay and come back because you have un finished work. GOOD JOB ROSIE.

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