Barbara Walters, interviewing legend -- The first female coanchor makes TV history with her "Barbara Walters Special" 20 years ago

By Laura C. Smith
December 16, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

Barbara Walters had to prove she was worth a million dollars, and on the night of Dec. 14, 1976, she did. A 12-year veteran of NBC’s Today show, and its first woman coanchor, she had carved such a reputation as an interviewer who could pry private thoughts from public figures that ABC had given her that unprecedented salary and made her the first prime-time female coanchor on any network. After 10 weeks of uncomfortable coanchoring with Harry Reasoner, however, she was starting to look overpaid — until the December night when the first Barbara Walters Special aired.

On the inaugural show, Walters visited the Plains, Ga., home of President-elect Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, and the Malibu ranch of Barbra Streisand and her then boyfriend, producer Jon Peters. She asked Peters if he was an opportunist, as often alleged, and pressed Streisand on how she felt performing for thousands. She insisted that Carter choose between Gone With the Wind‘s Melanie and Scarlett. She even inquired about the plans for sleeping arrangements in the White House. It was unlike anything viewers had seen, and they loved it. The show reaped a 36 percent share, more than any such prime-time interview before.

In many ways, it was no surprise. Viewers already loved Walters’ intimate interviewing, her ”Baba Wawa” speech pattern, and her ability to land interviews with anyone, even Fidel Castro. Yet she had still been expected to hold her questions until her male colleagues had their say, and on ABC News, a disgruntled Reasoner and time constraints had confined her. The hour-long special was the first real showcase for Walters’ particular talent.

Her nervy blend of news and entertainment drew its share of criticism. Morley Safer sniffed that Walters ”has now effectively withdrawn herself from the profession of journalism.” Far from bowing to such complaints, she dropped ratings-dampening political guests for more showbiz types. Even now, in a field crowded with touchy-feely imitators, her style remains unchanged. ”I want people to feel as if they’ve had a wonderful meal,” she says today. ”And that when it’s done, you really know this person.”

Dec. 14, 1976
Moviegoers were mad as hell about Network, while readers dug Alex Haley’s best-selling Roots. TV viewers took One Day at a Time, and pop fans grooved to Rod Stewart’s No. 1 hit, ”Tonight’s the Night.”