When Elisabeth Hasselbeck strode out onto "The View" stage Wednesday morning for the last time, arm-in-arm with Barbara Walters, and bade a tearful farewell to her co-hosts, it wasn't exactly a surprise.
After all, her departure from the show, after a decade as its lone conservative voice, had been rumored for months. It was, however, abrupt, coming less than a day after news broke that she would be leaving the ABC talk show to replace Gretchen Carlson as co-host of "Fox & Friends."
While Hasselbeck's decision to depart for the greener — or is it redder? — pastures of Fox News might have seemed inevitable given her outspoken politics, it comes at an awkward time for the long-running program.
In addition to Joy Behar, who's leaving the show she's been a part of since it launched in 1997, "The View" is also losing its creator and doyenne, Walters, who will retire from broadcasting next year. Though there have been plenty of tense, highly publicized personnel changes over the years, the talk-fest has yet to endure an overhaul of this magnitude: Between them, the three departing co-hosts combined have spent more than 40 years on the show.
While "The View" remains the top-rated show in daytime television, averaging 3.1 million daily viewers and easily outpacing its derivative rival, CBS' "The Talk," at 2.4 million viewers, its audience has also declined by nearly 800,000 viewers since its ratings peak in the 2008-09 season.
"You look at the numbers and you can see there is some fatigue. Getting new people and a new direction might be good for the show," said Brad Adgate, an analyst at Horizon Media.
Even more problematic for "The View" is that its audience has aged right along with it. In the show's first year on the air in 1997, the average viewer was 45, but now that age is 61.7, according to Adgate.
Which makes Hasselbeck's exit even more of a loss for the show. At just 36, she is by far its youngest co-host, even if her conservative views on subjects such as emergency contraception put her at odds with many women of her generation.
ABC declined to comment, though a source close to the show indicated it was Hasselbeck's decision to leave in the manner that she did. Calls to Fox News and Hasselbeck's representation were not returned.
Before joining the talk show in 2003 as a 25-year-old, Hasselbeck was best known for finishing in fourth place on "Survivor: The Australian Outback." She soon rose to prominence as the show's sole reliably Republican voice, a role burnished during Rosie O'Donnell's brief tenure on the show from 2006 to '07 when the two clashed over the Iraq war, and the pitched presidential campaigns of '08 and '12.
Her move to Fox News might seem like a fitting choice, but it is not without risk, say industry analysts. At "The View," she was given rare journalistic opportunities, like interviewing President Obama, something she's unlikely to experience quite as often on "Fox & Friends." (As she put it Wednesday, "Over the course of a decade, I feel as though I have attended the Barbara Walters School of Broadcasting and Journalism.") In some ways, her status in the minority on "The View" was a huge boon to her career, with her dissenting opinions regularly generating headlines.
It seems doubtful that she'll clash with new co-hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade the way she did with Behar and O'Donnell — as Kilmeade put it on Wednesday's show, "Can you imagine she's going to be on a show where they actually let her talk?" — or that her pronouncements will get quite the same level of attention they once did.
"She's losing the mainstream audience but she's also shedding the reputation as the token conservative and the villain. She's leaving for a place where clearly she is going to build her brand with an audience that uniformly appreciates her," said Andrew Kirell, senior editor at the website Mediaite. "The Fox News audience is very, very loyal. Maybe she trades in a certain amount of eyeballs for firm loyalty."
When reports first began to surface that Hasselbeck was on her way out, the decision was said to have been influenced by market research saying viewers found her too conservative. As off-putting as she might be to some on the left, Hasselbeck may not be easy to replace, particularly if "The View" is committed to representing multiple political points of view.
She's not Gloria Steinem but she's hardly Michele Bachmann, either, bucking GOP orthodoxy by expressing support for gay marriage and occasionally criticizing others on the right, including Bristol and Sarah Palin.
"They could do a lot worse with a conservative voice," said Jessica Grose, a contributor to Slate magazine. "I actually would prefer having an Elisabeth Hasselbeck. It's good for people to see both sides of the political spectrum. We're all so shut in our echo chambers."
It could simply be that the show is veering away from politics altogether, a possibility strengthened by the upcoming departure of Behar, an equally vociferous liberal with her own show on Current.
Bloggers and media insiders might get a kick out of the partisan bickering on "The View," but the average viewer may find the heated conversations and subsequent tearful apologies less amusing — especially in an A.M. time slot where in some markets, "The View" now competes with the loopy, lighthearted fourth hour of "Today."
"Even if you can't stand Elisabeth Hasselbeck, it was awful to see her break down on camera," said Jessica Coen, editor-in-chief of the feminist website Jezebel, which has closely documented the various feuds at "The View." "It's not morning entertainment. That's the kind of thing we've come to expect from reality TV."
Neither of the two women rumored to be in the running as new co-hosts, Jenny McCarthy and Brooke Shields, are particularly outspoken when it comes to the subject of party politics. Shields has written openly about her battle with postpartum depression and the help she received from antidepressants, which could make her popular with some women.
McCarthy, a former Playboy model who rose to fame as co-host of the '90s MTV dating show "Singled Out," has a raunchy candor that would certainly liven up "The View." But given her ongoing support for the widely discredited theory linking childhood vaccines with autism, McCarthy may prove more divisive — particularly on a show aimed at mothers — than Hasselbeck.
And even if the partisan squabbles have grown exhausting, ditching the Washington chit-chat altogether isn't necessarily the best idea, according to some observers.
"'The View' has always been good at having those more serious discussions, and I hope they don't abandon that altogether. Women can like both things, fluff and more serious content," said Coen. "We contain multitudes."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun