For five years, most of them with Howard K. Smith at his side, Harry Reasoner sat in his anchor chair at ABC handing down good news and bad with the self- assurance of Mount Rushmore. But on April 20, 1976, Rushmore registered a 6.0 on the Richter scale when ABC wooed Barbara Walters away from NBC’s Today and signed her as an anchor with a record $1-million-a-year contract. That fall, as she took her seat next to Reasoner (Howard K. Smith had already assumed the role of commentator), she became the first woman ever to deliver the evening news from the main desk. Rushmore was rattled.
Although Reasoner publicly maintained that he didn’t mind Walters ”as a person and as a woman,” he privately voiced his displeasure with her to the ABC brass. The network boosted his salary from $200,000 to $500,000 — the same amount Walters was receiving for her anchor duties (the other $500,000 was for her work on specials). But the tensions wouldn’t go away. ”You know, Harry,” she quipped in one especially embarrassing exchange, ”Kissinger didn’t do too badly as a sex symbol in Washington.” Her counterpart just glared: ”Well, you would know more about that than I would.”
If Reasoner was tough on her, the rest of the media were downright rude — and more than a little sexist. Larry Flynt offered her another million if she would pose nude for Hustler. TIME, sniffing at the tour she gave of her own apartment on her first prime-time special, labeled the 45-year-old journalist 1976’s ”Most Appalling Argument for Feminism.” And Gilda Radner made ”Baba Wawa’s” mild speech impediment a joke on Saturday Night Live.
After two years of low ratings, Reasoner and Walters both left their desks in 1978 and the broadcast changed to a multianchor format. But by then Walters had proved herself more than just a million-dollar baby. She had deftly moderated the final Ford-Carter debate in 1976 and had scored a coup by interviewing Fidel Castro the following year. And in the Barbara Walters Specials she and ABC found a show that continues to be a huge ratings winner. For the specials and her weekly duties on the highly rated 20/20, Walters receives an annual salary somewhere around Dan Rather’s — about $3 million.
Was she worth the first million? Absolutely. As far as ABC is concerned, the interviewer who once solicited Katharine Hepburn’s arboreal fantasies can fairly be called a money tree.
Time Capsule: April 20, 1976
Johnnie Taylor’s ”Disco Lady” was the week’s biggest hit, Gore Vidal’s 1876 made history as a best-seller, The Bad News Bears hit a movie box office home run, with All in the Family was tops on TV in its seventh season.