It's hard to say no to Meredith Vieira. While putting together her new daytime show, NBCUniversal executives let the host pick her executive producer, sidekick, band — even the furniture on her set (a tatty, pet-ravaged couch from her Westchester, New York, home). Perhaps the "suits" — as Vieira calls them — are aware that she is one of the rare TV talents who is not afraid to walk away from it all.
After becoming, at age 35 in 1989, the youngest correspondent ever hired by 60 Minutes, she left the prestigious CBS newsmagazine two years later to have her second child when then-executive producer Don Hewitt refused her request to work part-time. Her very public decision sparked a national conversation on the challenges for women who balance motherhood and career. After an Emmy award-winning stint on the ABC newsmagazine Turning Point, she changed course, becoming a founding panelist on the daytime coffee klatch The View in 1997.
Viewers already familiar with her compassionate storytelling style soon warmed to her candor and bawdy sense of humor (who could forget her on-air admission that she doesn't wear underwear with her panty hose?). In 2006, Vieira — who also took a turn as a game-show host, emceeing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire from 2002 to 2013 — left The View to enter the morning grind at NBC's Today, replacing Katie Couric as coanchor. She helped keep Today No. 1 in the ratings for five years, then turned down a nearly $20-million-a-year deal, leaving to spend more time with her husband, former TV news producer Richard Cohen, who has multiple sclerosis, is legally blind, and has battled colon cancer. But when syndication companies came calling about a daytime talk show, Cohen "was the first one to say, 'Go back,'" Vieira says. "I don't know what that means!"
Vieira's family-first credo is evident on the Rockefeller Center set of The Meredith Vieira Show, which premieres September 8. The walls are lined with photos chronicling her 28-year marriage, artwork from her children, Ben, 25, Gabe, 22, and Lily, 21, and a replica of the sign from her father's medical practice in Providence, Rhode Island. Shelves are filled with books, mostly historical biographies, from her home library, a sign the show will aim to be smart as well as fun. "We want you to act like the Jerry Springer audience," a warm-up comedian tells the crowd at a taping of one of the first shows. "But you guys can read." Over two hours, Vieira shoots segments, some of which will air in the program's opening weeks. She greets a national yo-yo champion and shows a heart-tugging taped piece, called "Pick Me Up Truck," in which "ambassadors" travel to disadvantaged areas and give away money. We talked to Vieira in her dressing room — once she dried off from filming an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
TV Guide Magazine: How is it that, throughout your career, you've been able to host a game show and do crazy daytime talk-show stunts while remaining a credible journalist?
Meredith Vieira: Probably schizophrenia! [Laughs] I didn't intend it, really. When I got out of news, it was because I didn't want to travel anymore. I'm a reporter who didn't want to report. And when I auditioned for The View, I never thought I'd get it, and I wasn't a big daytime person. Then I found I liked it. So that gave me the opportunity to find a voice that I really didn't have as a reporter. I was all about telling other people's stories. With Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, I loved the game. It was something my family watched Regis Philbin do, and I thought, why not try it? Give away money to people who need money — how great is that? I've just run with every show and have done the best I can and have found that I like those different facets.
TV Guide Magazine: You looked very relaxed out there today.
Vieira: Oh, good. [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: It appears that being on television has never really been the oxygen that sustains you. Are you aware of that? Does it help you as you do your job?
Vieira: I don't think so. What I like most about doing this is connecting to people. That's what I missed most about the job, and that's why I wanted to come back and try it again. But I'm nervous before every show because I'm a perfectionist.
TV Guide Magazine: How nervous? You don't throw up, do you?
Vieira: No, I don't throw up. But this is my third [taping], so I'm a little better today than I was the first day. But it's a big responsibility. My name is in the title now. I've done a lot of shows, but it's my name — I hate that.
TV Guide Magazine: And you're employing a lot of people. You have friends who left other jobs to work with you here.
Vieira: That's exactly right. And families need to be fed. I'm very aware of it. I have a clause that allows me to get out at the end of the year if I don't want to do it anymore or if it's going in a direction [I'm not happy with]. Everything is great until the numbers come in and then it's, 'Oh, we need you to do this....' But now, how could I [quit]?
TV Guide Magazine: Katie Couric found on her talk show that there were segments that did well but she didn't particularly like doing them.
Vieira: That's why that clause is there. If we did go down a path that wasn't me, I could leave and everybody would understand. But I've got to say, the executives — the suits — have been fabulous and very supportive.
TV Guide Magazine: You've always been public about your husband Richard's health. You must hear from a lot of people going through the same experience.
Vieira: Absolutely. I think they appreciate someone else talking about it. I'm not going to hide it. It's part of our life. He hid it for a long time, so it's almost refreshing for me not to have to.
TV Guide Magazine: You're not afraid to share. Today you told the audience that Richard is legally blind but can spot a woman with big breasts a mile away.
Vieira: Totally! And he can also beat you at pool. What is that about? Both very annoying.
TV Guide Magazine: He's at peace with being fodder for your host chat?
Vieira: He's at peace, yeah. Every once in a while I'll get an email that says, "Oh, jeez! What'd you say?" I have to be much more careful about my kids because they have made it clear to me that their personal life is their personal life. And when I was at The View, I remember saying something about one of them, I think it was Ben, having a girlfriend, and it was bad. I just have to be careful. The artwork in here and on the set, that's all my kids', and I have to ask their permission if it's OK. I'm not messing with them anymore.
TV Guide Magazine: Your battle to balance motherhood while working as a correspondent at 60 Minutes was a big deal. What do you think about that situation 23 years later?
Vieira: I don't look back a lot, to be honest. And even in the moment, I didn't do a lot of heavy thinking about it. I was given an ultimatum, understandably, by Don Hewitt, and it was easy for me. Afterward, I got a little nervous about what I'd done in terms of my career, but I've always believed that something will come up and knew in my heart of hearts where I needed to be.
TV Guide Magazine: As someone who paid dues to clear the way for working moms, how do you feel when you hear younger female celebrities today go out of their way to say, "I'm not a feminist"?
Vieira: I've always loved the word feminist because, to me, it wasn't about aggressive behavior; it was about women standing up for themselves, being about to do what they wanted to do. That we were equal to anyone else and we were going to go for whatever it is that we wanted in our lives. And so, to me, that was positive. I didn't see it as anti-male at all. I saw it as pro-female. I don't know why the connotation has gotten such a bad rap now, because you're right, a lot of young women see it as "that's anti-male — I don't like that."
TV Guide Magazine: Did you have any regrets walking away from Today? Your last day there was very emotional.
Vieira: It was really hard. I love the people on that show dearly. And I loved doing the show — it's just that the hours were really not for me. I didn't have a life. I knew it was the right decision, but that was a great family. I mean, I'm sorry about everything that's happened since. It's been a rough patch.
TV Guide Magazine: You and coanchor Matt Lauer turned out to be a tough act to follow. Did you ever talk to your successor, Ann Curry, after she was yanked from the anchor chair?
Vieira: Briefly, just to tell her I loved her. I felt so sorry for her, and I felt sorry for Matt for being the fall guy. I didn't think that was fair. At the end of the day, I don't think it was handled well. Because [when I was on the show] they could have come to me at any time and said, "Look, this ain't working out." They have the right to do that, and I may not like it, but I know that going in. So I think there could have been better ways to handle it.
TV Guide Magazine: Were you surprised when Matt recently signed a new deal to stay with Today?
Vieira: I was totally surprised. He's a little liar. Because every time he's going to re-sign he says, "Oh, I'm not doing it again." When I heard [him say that this time], I said to my agent, "Trust me, he's not — he's had enough."
TV Guide Magazine: You and Matt are still good friends. Did he ask you for advice?
Vieira: No. He just lies to me every time. Or maybe he actually thinks, "I'm going to leave this time." But, you know, for Matt that's a great gig. He knows how to power-nap. He likes that schedule. And I think he likes that world.
TV Guide Magazine: You insisted on having a band on your show, which is unusual for daytime TV, but it gives the show a nice house-party feel.
Vieira: I've always thought it'd be so cool to have a band in my home. Particularly when I had a bad day — how great would that be? And then the suits were like, "This is crazy!" and I said, "C'mon, it could be great!" Then they met Everett Bradley [touring percussionist for the E Street Band, who is Vieira's bandleader]. Everett is not only really talented, but he gives back. He works with kids who stutter. He's a good man. And I just liked the vibe of him. Then we decided we wanted all women in the band. And they will play a bigger role as we go along.
TV Guide Magazine: How about quick impressions of some of the big names you've worked with? Let's start with Barbara Walters.
TV Guide Magazine: Mike Wallace.
Vieira: Complicated. [Laughs]
TV Guide Magazine: He didn't try to undo your bra, did he?
TV Guide Magazine: He was known for doing that to women at CBS News.
Vieira: Yeah, I've heard. No. There would be a lot of fighting going on in his office. He was a passionate man.
TV Guide Magazine: Kathie Lee Gifford.
Vieira: Crazy. And kind. Truly kind.
TV Guide Magazine: Star Jones.
Vieira: [Deep breath] Spunky. Confident.
TV Guide Magazine: Matt Lauer.
Vieira: Jackass! [Laughs] Brilliant. Brilliant.
TV Guide Magazine: You look amazing.
Vieira: Aw, thank you.
TV Guide Magazine: And you're not afraid to talk about being 60.
Vieira: No. What am I going to do?
TV Guide Magazine: What do you do to stay in such great shape?
Vieira: Running, which is really jogging. I call it running — it sounds much better. I love to hike. It's probably my favorite thing to do. Cardio. I've started a slow workout with weights. They keep adding the weights, and you have to do two minutes of very slow movements. And then — wine. That helps. It makes me forget how old I am.
The Meredith Vieira Show premieres Monday, Sept. 8; check local listings at tvguide.com