TVN’s Executive Session | More Than 25 Words With Meredith Vieira
MIAMI BEACH — “Eclectic” is one of Meredith Vieira’s favorite words. It’s also a fitting adjective to describe her 45-year career in television.
A former 60 Minutes correspondent, Vieira was The View’s inaugural moderator, staying with the show from 1997 to 2013. She left to become co-anchor of Today and later had an eponymous talk show produced by NBCUniversal Television Distribution in 2014-15.
From 2002 to 2013, Vieira also had a side gig as the host of Disney’s syndicated version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. She was here this week promoting her latest game show outing, Fox First Run’s 25 Words or Less, which is going into its second season.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Vieira said the segue from journalism to game shows was more natural than it might seem and she wouldn’t have the stomach to take on another talk show in today’s highly polarized climate. She also hinted she may have yet another act — a true crime podcast that hits close to home for her.
An edited transcript.
You’re a syndicated game show host. What’s your take on how streaming has hit the business?
It’s scary. Obviously my talk show was syndicated. Millionaire was syndicated. You’re at the whim of every market. When you’re a network show, it’s a little bit different. I’m not sure how much breathing room they give to network shows any more, but it used to be a pretty decent amount of time, and now in syndication you’d better hit it out of the ballpark pretty quickly. That’s nerve wracking.
Well, you’ve got a second year with this one.
I do. But after Millionaire, I stopped looking at numbers. I internalize, so I would be really depressed or really elated. The people I work for would say: ‘It’s one day, Meredith. You can’t be a basket case day to day.’ I just do the best job I can do and hope that somehow when they crunch all those numbers, we come back.
You did Millionaire for a long run, and this show is now in its second year, but it’s such a difference from your long news experience. What attracts you to doing this?
Initially, Millionaire just came to me. Michael Davis, who had produced it with Regis [Philbin] in primetime knew they were going to do a syndicated version. Regis didn’t want to do it, and Michael knew of my work. He came to me and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ when I was at The View. The more I thought about it, I loved Millionaire. My kids were little when it came out and we’d sit there as a family and watch. I thought, ‘Why not? What’s the harm in it?’
In an odd way, it felt like a segue from what I did as a journalist. The whole job as the host of that show was to make people comfortable, to draw them out and let them be the best version of themselves. I thought my reporting skills would be beneficial.
Did that turn out to be true?
Totally. Most people would come in so nervous, and I felt for them. On Millionaire, you didn’t want to go off on the first question because it was usually a pretty obvious one. But people got scared. So I would take the time to ease them into it, sometimes with humor, and it was totally my skills as an interviewer that would help, and the empathy that comes with being a reporter. I did no harm, I gave out money that wasn’t mine. It was a pretty good gig.
What was it about this show that appealed to you?
I heard this was a game created by the person who created Taboo, which I loved. [Fox Television Stations EVP of Programming] Stephen Brown came to me, and I really liked Steven. Mary McCormack brought it from the Midwest, where she played it as a board game with her family. She was very close to Lisa Kudrow and Dan Bucatinsky, and they were playing it all the time.
They worked on it for at least a year and had it in pretty good shape, and Fox said we’ll shoot 15 and see the reaction. We’ll begin in five markets. Dan came to see me, and he’s incredibly charming. I went to L.A. and had a fabulous time. I loved the crew there. There was something really fun about shooting on the same lot as Lucille Ball. There’s a lot of history there. Even though I thought it was a good game, I never thought we’d be picked up.
Is it more relaxing than Millionaire?
It’s different. It’s much faster paced. There’s a lot more humor in it. There’s antics, and Millionaire was not about antics. The other thing about Millionaire was when we started, they didn’t have the clock and contestants could take as long as they wanted. At tapings, we’d have audience members loudly leave. They were angry. I loved doing the game, but it was a whole different baby than this.
You were the first moderator of The View, which has spawned many similar programs and is itself going on over 20 years now. How do you account for its enduring popularity?
Its topical nature. Barbara [Walters] was on to something when she thought, I’m going to present several generations of women and have them sit down at a table and — initially — calmly discuss issues. It’s become a little more fraught than it was at the beginning.
Women wanted to hear women’s voices reflecting what they thought. Then we discovered men like the show, too. First it was just prisoners — we’d get these letters — but then more and more men came as well. I just think the formula works when the chemistry’s right.
When you look at it now in this political climate, what do you think of the show and where it has evolved?
I don’t really watch TV in the day, which is ironic since I do a daytime show. I worry sometimes when it just dissolves down to screaming and yelling, which I’ve heard is happening more and more. But I love the idea in theory of having different voices from liberal to conservative, young and older trying to hash it out. We’re in a tough time. It makes audiences think.
We’re in an extremely polarized climate right now, and the news environment is suffering from enormous trust issues. When you look at that, what do you think the news industry needs to do to rebuild that trust, especially going into the next election?
They just need to do their jobs. The more that there’s bias on either side — and I understand MSNBC has a point of view, Fox has a point of view — but when you start seeing mainstream news and you think they’ve already made their decision, that’s dangerous.
When I went to CBS News, we had to read a book on standards and practices from front to back and we were tested on it. We had to deliver the truth, source it and don’t just run with things. I don’t think there’s a value placed on diligence that there used to be, and you run the risk of getting things wrong.
Is it OK for some news to have a point of view?
As long as they make it clear. MSNBC or Fox doesn’t hide it. The danger is the people who watch it already have that point of view, so they’re just having reflected back what they already think.
When you look at the whole spectrum of cable and broadcast news, who’s getting it right right now?
Chris Wallace does a good job. Lester [Holt] does a good job, Jake Tapper. There are good folks out there just trying to get the truth out.
What advice would you give to your fellow anchors and hosts as we go into the next election?
Everybody comes to the table with their talking points and they don’t even answer a question. It’s getting through that garbage. That’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re on the road with them and they only have three minutes for you, so you have to keep chipping away. The worst thing in the world is when you’ve asked a question and you know you’ve gotten nowhere with them, and some people are masters of that.
Do you miss having a talk show yourself? Would you want to be doing a show in this climate?
I don’t think I would because I don’t have the stomach for it anymore. I find that I go down that rabbit hole in the morning because I can’t help myself. That laptop is a little too close, and I get depressed, It’s like a malaise. It eats away at me too much.
So if the opportunity came up again…
I don’t want to say never. But I just saw Drew Barrymore here, and I almost wanted to pull her aside and say, my god, you don’t know what you’re getting into. You can’t phone it in. The days are so long. It’s really tough to do, and the deck is stacked against you. Major kudos to Kelly [Clarkson] and Tamron [Hall]. I’m rooting for them. But it’s not easy day in and day out, and you get second-guessed a lot. Networks and syndicators are very quick that if they’re not seeing the numbers, they say, ‘OK, let’s change it.’
Is there something else in television you want to do next?
As projects come to me, I evaluate them. I don’t want to go back to the grind of a daily show. I did that and don’t think I have to prove anything to myself of anybody else. I’ve been doing some podcasts with Pfizer on metastatic breast cancer. They wanted somebody who could interview doctors, patients, clinicians and researchers, and I loved doing that. I can use my skills to actually educate people.
Do you like podcasting as a form?
I do. There’s one that I’m dabbling with that has to do with a woman I went to school with. I went to an all-girls school, and she was murdered right before 11th grade. My dad was one of the medical examiners. I’m trying to see what I can do with that.
When my talk show was over, I was feeling sorry for myself. I thought, what am I going to do? And I thought of this young lady and Googled her, and it came up that the case was reopened. It took me almost two years just to get the cops to believe I wasn’t trying to be a jackass and I really cared about her. I thought, I can help. I have a platform.
So you’re working on a true crime podcast?
Possibly. But it goes well beyond the crime. It’s about a lot of other things.
And it’s bringing you back into investigative journalism.
Yes. That feels good. I think about her. If at the end of the day, everything I’ve learned culminates in maybe solving this, or at least giving this girl a voice… It’s those kinds of things.