But O’Donnell’s unhappiness at “The View” led her to announce on Friday, via a story in the New York Post’s Page Six section, that she was exiting the show after five months. ABC executives agreed to release her early from a 11-month contract, estimated to be worth $5 million.
In a brief interview with “Entertainment Tonight” over the weekend, O’Donnell attributed her departure to a desire to focus on her family after divorcing with wife Michelle Rounds, whom she married in 2012, and whose first initial she tattooed on her wedding-ring finger. But insiders say that the end of her second marriage, which she candidly talked about with “The View’s” staff, isn’t the only reason she’s leaving.
O’Donnell, who has a reputation as a demanding and sometimes abrasive boss, didn’t feel like her strengths were being properly used by ABC, according to those close to the 52-year-old comedian. Compounding the problem were tensions with co-host Whoopi Goldberg and behind-the-scenes executive turmoil at “The View,” which recently shifted to management under ABC News.
In a pressure-filled environment, O’Donnell fell into some of the same traps that she faced the last time she was on “The View,” when she refused to wear a earpiece on camera and openly battled with then-exec producer Bill Geddie. On the other hand, she wasn’t able to catalyze the same buzz and ratings growth as she did before.
During her first stint on the show, O’Donnell had served as “The View’s” moderator, but that job now belongs to Goldberg. Insiders say this turned out to be a source of frustration for O’Donnell, as she felt Goldberg was dismissive of opposing viewpoints during some of the show’s key debates. For example, O’Donnell didn’t like what she saw as Goldberg’s refusal to let the co-hosts have a candid discussion about one of the most explosive topics of the past few months: the allegations of rape levied at Bill Cosby by more than two dozen women.
The working relationship between O’Donnell and Goldberg became even more strained as a result of the show’s morning meetings. “The View” staff typically congregated at 9 a.m. each day to brainstorm for the “Hot Topics” segment. O’Donnell didn’t think this gave them enough time to prepare for an 11 a.m. live show, so the meetings were moved to 8:30 a.m.
But the earlier time meant that Goldberg (who commutes into the city each morning from New Jersey) would sometimes arrive a few minutes late. This irked O’Donnell, who interpreted Goldberg’s occasional tardiness as a sign that she wasn’t committed to the job. The meetings eventually moved back to 9 a.m.
During her previous ’06-’07 tenure, which was certainly rocky, O’Donnell increased viewership and made the show relevant again. This year, “The View” has plummeted 9% in its target demo of women 25-54, sometimes even losing the demo race to CBS’ upstart rival, “The Talk.”
The disappointing numbers could be a result of O’Donnell’s different persona on “The View,” where she isn’t as political as the outspoken liberal who once used to trash George W. Bush’s policies and offer Sept. 11 conspiracy theories. The daytime TV star looked uncomfortable and tentative at the “Hot Topics” table this season, and recused herself from long stretches of conversation. ABC executives would often ask O’Donnell to look happier on air, a note that the comedian didn’t appreciate, according to sources.
While O’Donnell remains a skilled interviewer, it’s also clear that she isn’t as attuned to pop culture as she used to be. In 2011, she had a short-lived talk show on OWN and, by many accounts, drove her staff crazy by berating them and constantly changing the format — veering from light celebrity interviews to games with the audience.
But following a near fatal heart attack in 2012, O’Donnell has become even more serious about social issues. During “Hot Topics,” she’d often chime in to plug one of her favorite documentaries, and asked that the show book guests like “Vagina Monologues” writer Eve Ensler and the parents of Matthew Shepard.
These more hard-hitting segments didn’t rate with the daytime audience, which prefers light fare such as discussions about Justin Bieber, “Dancing With the Stars” and “The Bachelor” (a show that O’Donnell doesn’t watch).
Staffers say there weren’t as many backstage fights as there were during O’Donnell’s previous tenure on the show — which included the fallout from O’Donnell mocking Donald Trump’s hair, and creator-exec producer Barbara Walters getting caught in that public feud, as well as a spectacular shouting match with ex-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck on her final day. But the off-stage interactions between O’Donnell and the ABC staff were often cold. “She shut down completely,” one employee says.
O’Donnell didn’t gel much with the staff, and she once singled out certain people in a meeting and accused them of leaking information about her in the press. And she constantly talked about how she had made a mistake in agreeing to return to “The View,” and threatened to quit on several occasions.
There may not have been a single event that let to O’Donnell’s decision to leave “The View,” although her mood slightly improved in January when Goldberg was sidelined for two weeks due to a back injury. (Rosie Perez was also absent, rehearsing for a Broadway play.)
O’Donnell then took over as moderator, and started to channel her old personality. She cracked one-liners, improvised from the TelePrompTer and was happy to steer the show her own way, according to sources. But she was disappointed that ratings for “The View” dipped with her in charge, a decline that could also be the result of a rotating panel of B-list guest co-hosts.
O’Donnell’s brief return to “The View” has coincided with a period of upheaval at the network. Her hiring at “The View” was one of the last acts by Anne Sweeney, who stepped down as president of Disney/ABC Television Group last month after 10 years at the helm. In addition, insiders say “The View” these days often feels like a rudderless ship without Walters, who retired last May.
O’Donnell was disheartened that she couldn’t steer “The View” in the right direction, and that her ideas weren’t being heard. O’Donnell was accustomed to being in charge as she was during her six-season run on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” which ran in syndication from 1996-2002. She’d frequently cite her previous TV experience and awards in meetings as proof that other staffers should listen to her.
But as the 18th season of “The View” started to come together over the summer, incoming ABC president Ben Sherwood — who officially started his job this month — wanted his ABC News team to oversee the show’s post-Walters makeover instead of ABC’s daytime executives. ABC News and the daytime execs on the entertainment side engaged in a tug of war over the show until Sherwood mandated that it move to the news side.
The inhouse bickering over “The View” meant that important decisions, like casting the new co-hosts that would join O’Donnell and Goldberg, became frantic, eleventh-hour decisions. ABC finally settled on Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace and Perez just weeks before the first live airing, as new exec producer and showrunner Bill Wolff was cobbling together a revamped set without communicating with any of the co-hosts.
“The View” premiered to 3.9 million viewers in September—an eight-year record that proved stay-at home moms and dads were eager to see O’Donnell back on the show—but then the numbers quickly dropped.
In October, following the disappointing launch, ABC News officially inherited control of “The View” as part of Sherwood’s plan, but the show’s staff is still largely comprised of daytime employees who resent the new hierarchical structure.
“The View” is now being micro-managed by five executives under the direction of ABC News president James Goldston. Sources have expressed frustration that seemingly mundane decisions are filtered through an exec gantlet that includes Tom Cibrowski, senior VP of programs; Barbara Fedida, senior VP for talent and business; David Sloan, a senior executive producer at “20/20”; Randall Barone, VP of daytime programming; and Wolff, a former “Rachel Maddow” producer, who sources say doesn’t exercise much control and seems lost in the daytime zone.
Last week, “View” co-exec producer Brian Balthazar announced he was leaving to take on a job as VP of programming at HGTV. “There are way too many cooks,” says one staffer.
Sources say that some of O’Donnell’s expectations could have been managed if the reshuffling to ABC News hadn’t produced such a chaotic work environment. But the new organizational structure put into effect by Sherwood has made morale at “The View” low. On Jan. 14, Variety broke the news that ABC executives had reached a decision to fire Perez and replace her with a younger co-host. But once the plan was made public, ABC backtracked amid a backlash from O’Donnell and the other co-hosts who weren’t aware of the plan.
Perez returned to the show last week from her previously scheduled monthlong hiatus to rehearse for Larry David’s play “Fish in the Dark.” ABC execs strongly deny that there was ever a plan in place to remove Perez. But Perez’s return to “The View” was deemed awkward by some, despite Goldberg announcing on TV that the show’s four co-hosts were there to stay for good. A few days later, O’Donnell had enough — and she bailed on “The View.”