Bill Geddie, with Barbara Walters, is the executive producer of ABC’s The View. He also runs Walters’ Barwall Productions, which produces her highly regarded specials. Last Week (12/12), Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People won its time-slot with 8.8 million viewers. And with the addition of Rosie O’Donnell as a co-host The View just came off its best Nov. sweeps in the show’s ten-year history in both women 18-49 and total viewers. Because of O’Donnell’s antics (she recently got in a spat with Kelly Ripa, invited a drunken Danny DeVito to sit on her lap and offended a Chinese-American city councilman), the show has become daily chatter for mainstream media and bloggers alike. Geddie talked to B&C’s Anne Becker about Walters’ drive, The View’s antics and what it’s like to be a man in a women’s world.
How did you first meet Barbara?
Eighteen years ago I had worked and was close friends with Phyllis McGrady who was producing the Barbara Walters specials at the time. And she called me up and said, ‘I’m going to be making a career change, but I love Barbara and I don’t want to leave her with just anybody. I think you’re the perfect person to do the specials, but you have to go in and talk with her because she doesn’t know you from Adam.’ It was a big show – the 50th Barbara Walters special which meant that I’d be looking through her entire career. It was the perfect first show for me because I was forced to familiarize myself with everything she had done. And we did a two hour special, and I told Barbara, ‘just let me do this one special. You don’t know me. If you don’t like me, I’ll go away.’ It all worked for me because I would’ve worked with Barbara Walters once in my career. The truth of the matter is once you start one special you’re on the road to another one. In those days we did five a year and a repeat. You couldn’t just work on the one. So I got very lucky. And we hit it off immediately. We’re very, very different people, but for some reason her strengths are my weaknesses and my strengths are her weaknesses and somehow we mesh.
How do you complement each other?
What we do with the specials is I like to work with my team alone and present to her what I think it is, what I think would look good. And she is an amazing editor in the traditional sense When in some cases you’ve done a two-hour interview and you’re boiling it down to 15 minutes you need someone who can cut to chase. And she is really good at that. She can just look at something and say what’s missing and what you have there that’s not important now. And that’s a great instinct. She’s happy to let you take a hack at it and then is very good at correcting all your mistakes. What I like about Barbara is that she is not a snob and that’s so very, very important in television. You can say to her, ‘Jay Z’s a big deal. Let me explain why he’s a big deal.’ And she’ll go, ‘ok fine I get it.’ And within a couple of days she’ll know more about Jay Z than I ever knew. Barbara’s not a snob. Yes, she knows all those people and yes she goes to those parties, but she is also a real person and a regular person and she wouldn’t be where she is if she didn’t have a grasp of what people want to see.
At a time when celebrity glossies and blogs are getting sued left and right by celebrities for shoddy journalism, is it easier or harder for you to get guests for Barbara’s celebrity specials?
It’s all about Barbara. Many people have tried this celebrity interview in primetime game – Oprah, Katie Couric. Barbara is really the only person who can pull it off. I think they’d probably even agree. It is more difficult because so much is out there and there’s so much they are guarded about. There was a time where could sit down with people – and I’m not talking 50 years ago – people were less guarded eight or 10 years ago than they are now. They’re handled very, very closely. There are so many things they can’t talk about or don’t want to talk about. All we have to go on is that Barbara is fair. That’s it. Barbara’s fair and Barbara will listen. If you’ve seen specials over these many years, I think people understand that and that’s why we get these bookings. Not everybody says yes and it’s important to know that. There are people who just don’t want that level of interview, that in-depth.
For a woman of her age, she seems completely on point, competitive and energetic as ever – what keeps her so driven?
I’ll tell you a story. When I started with Barbara 18 years ago, my colleagues in the business said, ‘it’s a great job doing Barbara Walters specials, but it’ll only last you two or three years because no woman can make it past age 60 in television.’ Now 18 years later, she is if anything more vital and popular than she was then. What is it that does that? Barbara listens. She tries to stay fresh on all these ideas. She reads. She’s aware that it’s an ageist business and she can’t rest on her laurels. I think she has innate skills – she listens better than anybody I’ve ever been around. We come up with long list of questions, but when we cut the pieces together, many of those questions we were using are not actually something we wrote because she’s listening, she’s hearing something else, and she’s going there and that’s why she’s finding good things. She has this ability to stay vital that nobody else seems to have that that can be playing at the level she’s playing at at her age.
But she must be tremendously driven on a personal level?
Barbara has relaxed some since I first started with her 18 years ago. She is not as concerned if somebody else gets it and she doesn’t. She’s willing to work hard for it, but I don’t think it’s life and death for her if somebody else gets interview and she doesn’t. That was part of her decision in getting out of 20/20, because believe me Barbara would’ve been on 20/20 today. They certainly wanted her to keep doing it for all time, as far as I’m concerned. So she just said there’s a part of this game I’d like to ease up on a bit and I think the booking side of the business is something that’s very, very competitive and frustrating and so she does a little less of that now.
I’ve heard all of the women of The View have contracts that are up at the end of the year and that Rosie signed a one-year contract – is that true?
I never comment on any sort of contract situations, so I really can’t get into it. I can tell you this, and this is something I said to Meredith Vieria and I said it to Star Jones and I’ve said it to any woman who’s ever been at that table. The View is a franchise. It’s designed to be around when we’re all gone. It’s no different from Good Morning America in that respect. It is not dependent on any one personality. And we’ve been very careful in the way we run the show to make sure everybody understands that. If everybody stays, that’s fantastic and makes my life easier. We’re doing so well and that’s wonderful. But if everybody goes, it’s my job to keep that show on the air and Barbara and I will do it.
Why is The View so popular right now?
I think Rosie has energized the show. I think she’s the perfect fit at that table. I think it helps that Star Jones is not at that table. I think that was also a part of the puzzle. I think she was really important in getting the show on the air and on the map, but that time came and went and we needed to rethink the show and in doing that I think Rosie has made everybody better.
Rosie’s very open about her liberal views – has she tapped into the mood of the country or are people watching for the celebrity spats and gaffes she’s had lately?
I gotta tell you, I don’t think Rosie’s popularity has anything to do with her politics or her being a lesbian. I really don’t. She is a great, great broadcaster. She just a way of reaching through the television set and grabbing women at home and saying, ‘I’ve got something to say that you will relate to.’ That’s a unique skill. Everybody harps on that she’s a lesbian and has left wing politics. I don’t think that has anything to do with her success. It’s really about relateablilty and she’s an amazing presence on camera. We did two shows today and I kept saying in the headset, it’s amazing how good she is at this. That she’s reading what people at home want to see and hear and that’s a real gift.
I’ve heard that she wanted more focus on the audience.
I would say of the times we met early on, 90% of time she was what talking about was in the studio, and many of them are things you don’t even see on camera. She felt was important to for the audience to feel this experience was special and that audience feeds her and will make the show better, and I think she was right. We changed the configuration of the audience. We changed the set. We made sure the audience walked away with something – usually some sort of gift. We made sure the audience had cookies and juice. All things that up to this point, I probably would’ve thought, ‘who cares?’ it was very important to her and I think she was right.
About the gifts, has anyone objected to that sort of product placement and how much has it improved your relationship with advertisers?
I can say she’s been very good for our advertisers, but I think that’s primarily because she’s been really good for our numbers. If you’ve got the ratings, people are going to flock to you so I think that’s all very positive and I think that our sales department’s probably thrilled.
Rosie’s been getting an awful lot of attention lately in the media for some of her behavior. Are you someone who thinks it’s all good press?
I don’t think all press is good press. On other hand, we seem to be the touchstone for everything that’s happening, and I do enjoy the fact that when I turn on [E!’s] The Soup or I watch cable news or I pick up the local papers here, I like that they’re talking about us. I also have always encouraged the women at table to speak their minds, and sometimes they’re going to get in trouble, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
You’ve said you would hire a Star Jones replacement after Rosie was settled – where do you stand on that?
I have nothing to say about that right now. There’s no timetable, there’s nothing. There’s really not much to say, except that we’re running a lot of different people through there and some of them we think might be good and some of them are stunts and some of them are just we needed a fourth person at the table, so we don’t feel any pressure in that regard.
You’ve said you want that person to be a minority – is that still the case?
I think it’s important to have an African American voice at table, and I still feel that way.
ABC daytime in general wants to reach younger viewers and The View acts as a gateway to your daytime programming – are you explicitly attempting to reach a younger audience?
There was a time when I spent a lot of time thinking about that and trying to do that. Younger viewers can kind of smell you coming. Any time you try to pander to a younger, they know what you’re doing. We just try to do good shows now. I have some people on that demographically make no sense, but the women are excited about them and we know it will be good television. We have reached a larger, younger audience, but I defy you to point to a booking that says, ‘oh they’re going after that younger audience.’ Our bookings are all over the map. They’re Broadway shows that probably have no teen appeal, but yet we seem to be finding younger audiences. I think that’s Rosie’s appeal too and I think it’s not just Rosie. Elisabeth is better with Rosie. Joy’s better with Rosie. Barbara’s better with Rosie. All of things are playing to our audience very well and I do think that a livelier show skews younger. In general, livelier, funnier, more outrageous – all of that skews younger.
You just started streaming the show? Would you consider repurposing it on Disney-owned SoapNet?
I think all that’s great. Anything that gives people greater access to the show is good.
So many shows have tried to copy The View’s format over the years and failed. What is it about your show that is unique?
Yeah, it ain’t that easy. We have better talent and we create the right environment for them to do what they do and that’s what’s unique. It’s not just about getting a bunch of outrageous people and putting them at a table. It’s not that simple. It’s about finding the right people and the right mix of people. And it’s also about having someone like Barbara Walters there a couple of days a week to keep it all flowing. Barbara is an amazing presence even when she’s not on the show. There’s not one of us that doesn’t come to work every day realizing that this is Barbara’s show. Without Barbara there, none of this would’ve happened. We would’ve been cancelled in first or second year, but Barbara’s a real force. When it wasn’t working early on, I don’t think anybody had the guts to walk up to her and say, ‘hey, your show sucks. I think we have to get rid of it.’ She was a force and she said, ‘We’re working on it. It’s a work in progress. We’ll get there.’ And everybody stood back and let the experiment happen and that’s why we’re still here
What’s it like to be a man producing a woman’s show?
I never try to pretend I understand women and that’s very important. I don’t’ think I have any more understanding of women than any average guy. But I do try to encourage them to be themselves. But I think a woman could do the job very, very well. It probably in some ways helps that I’m a man because it’s a little different and there’s a lot of estrogen here. So I think in that sense it’s probably good, but it’s really about creating a creative environment and unleashing everybody’s inner voices.
You’re on air fairly often – are you reluctantly cast into that role?
I always say, ‘if I can help you in any way, I’ll do it. If I can be the brunt of a joke, if I can do to get a laugh or if I can help in any way that’s what I’ll do.’ Otherwise, that is it. I stay out of the way. I’m not an on-air personality and I think anybody who’s seene me realizes that. But early on, the network thought it would be kind of fun to see there’s this guy here in charge, but if you watch the show, you see that generally speaking I’m a side player and I’m basically there to get a laugh.
You produced some stuff for Discovery – do you still do producing on the side?
I did 60 hours for Discovery a year ago as a project I did on the side. I love cable television and I’m always trying to come up with ideas, and every now and then somebody gives me a deal and I put something on. I wrote a movie called Unforgettable. It was produced about 10 years ago. I think it’s a truly dreadful film, but it seems to have some sort of cult following and my wife says not as bad as I think it is. I always thought I was going to be a screenwriter so I’m sort of reluctant to give it up.
How’d you start out in the business?
I had worked at Good Morning America for three years as a field producer for David Hartman. When he left, I went with him and we did documentaries for about year and a half, and that’s when Barbara scooped me up. I always knew I wanted to get into TV. I am one of those people who was obsessed about talk shows, and begged my parents to let me stay up and watch Capote on Carson. Or Steve Allen or Don Rickles. Because I knew they’d do something crazy, or something wild and unpredictable. Even though I was 14, I would beg them to stay up late. So that became my obsession. I loved those shows because they were freewheeling and sooner or later someone would say something crazy. So it’s very exciting for me to at center of a show that’s doing the same sort of thing, that’s allowing people to speak their minds in a way that is sort of unfiltered.
How much longer are you and Barbara in it for these specials?
Barbara’s specials are really appointment viewing. I’m always really pleased when I see those numbers back the next day. I always think, this is really the last one. But then I get those numbers and we’re back on top again. We always do Fascinating People and our Oscar night special and then it’s kind of up to whether or not we have an idea. This year I felt it was extremely important to honor Barbara for doing those specials, but I also thought it was important to do it an irreverent way, so that’s how we came up with 30 Mistakes in 30 Years.
So you’re at The View for the long haul too?
Well, I mean, you never know what the future brings, but I think of The View as a baby conceived by Barbara and me, and we’re supposed to nurture it as long as we can.