By any conventional measure, Rosie O'Donnell does not seem like someone who would succeed on television.
She doesn't conform with traditional ideas of beauty. She's a lesbian mother of four. She's blunt and fearless and opinionated in a medium where it seems only men can get away with that. She picks fights with Donald Trump.
But O'Donnell's announcement yesterday that she's leaving the daytime gabfest The View after less than a year as a co-host left many fans shocked and in tears. Executives at ABC, which airs the program, also had reason to cry: Since O'Donnell joined the show in September, viewership of The View is up 17 percent, to 3.5 million.
A five-time winner of Star Search and former host of her own talk show, O'Donnell was no stranger to her audience. But she became a cultural force on The View, shocking a once-sleepy program into can't-miss television.
What worked for O'Donnell, whether she was telling cute stories about shoe-shopping with her kids or calling for the impeachment of President Bush, was an impression that she spoke from the heart - that it wasn't rehearsed or written for her by someone else. In her ability to reach through the screen and connect with viewers, experts said, she is the peer of Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite and Fred Rogers. (Though Mr. Rogers probably never called the president a "war criminal.")
But O'Donnell is also fiercely polarizing. On Web sites and message boards yesterday, her fans and detractors went to war, wielding all caps as their weapon of choice. Said one fan: "It makes me cry - truly. Rosie BELONGS ON DAYTIME because she is the ONLY ONE REPORTING THE TRUTH."
A less charitable soul responded: "DING DONG THE WITCH IS DEAD, DING DONG THE WICKED WITCH IS DEAD!!!!!!!!!!!! We'll all miss your [expletive] vitriolic diatribes Rosie."
While O'Donnell is unconventional in many ways, she connected with her viewers as a mother (she has four children and talks about them endlessly) and as someone in a stable relationship. And her tenure on The View coincided with a time when Americans were moving closer to her left-wing political views than in the opposite direction.
But O'Donnell also presented something rarely seen on network television: a woman with a point of view.
"Women aren't allowed to be as nasty as men are" on television, said Garland Waller, an assistant professor of television at Boston University. She added that O'Donnell moved the game forward for women on TV. "Very often, when women speak, it's not just an opinion. Suddenly, it's political diatribe. But Rosie's not evil and she's not a witch. What is it that's so bad about a woman who speaks her mind? Why is this an outrage?"
While there is speculation that ABC saw O'Donnell's candor as a ticking time bomb and didn't want a Don Imus-like situation on its hands, observers said that was unlikely because O'Donnell has given the show's ratings such a jolt. In the key 18-to-49 years demographic, viewership is up 18 percent under O'Donnell's stewardship.
On the show yesterday, O'Donnell said the network wanted her to sign a three-year contract extension and she wanted a one-year deal. In the end, they couldn't reach agreement. On air, O'Donnell explained the negotiations this way: "They were like, OK, what if we did two? I was like hevatha-hevatha-hevatha, and it just didn't work."
ABC was only slightly more comprehensible, saying agreement could not be reached on "key elements" of the deal. O'Donnell will remain as a co-host until mid-June and return as a guest host after that. There is no word on who might replace her.
On her syndicated talk show, from 1996 to 2002, O'Donnell was known as the "Queen of Nice," showering her audience with gifts and being super-friendly to her guests. But after the show ended and O'Donnell publicly came out as a lesbian, her remarks took on a harsher tone as she spoke out against the administration and, later, the war in Iraq.
Her change in persona carried over onto The View, where she frequently fought with conservative co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck and said, in citing various administration scandals, "What do you have to do to get impeached in this country?"
Her public image has taken a hit. O'Donnell's Q score among women - a measurement of her name recognition and popularity - fell from an above-average 20 in 2002 to 11 this year. (The average Q for a celebrity is 17, and the highest ever recorded was a 72 for Bill Cosby at the height of The Cosby Show.)
But a negative Q isn't incompatible with rising ratings for The View, said Henry Schafer, executive vice president of the Q Scores Co. on Long Island, N.Y., which conducts surveys to measure the appeal of public figures.
"Right now, a lot of people may be rating her negatively, but you have to be aware it may be a love/hate negative as opposed to hate/hate," Schafer said. "I think people still like to tune in to her and criticize her and argue with her than just out and out disliking her."
During that period, as her Q score fell, O'Donnell came out and was married in San Francisco to girlfriend Kelli Carpenter. Experts say it's unlikely that those events influenced people as much as her outspokenness on political issues. But she also has been careful not to, for instance, cut her hair too short while on The View.
"She's learned, I think, the hard way that she can go too far as far as being gruff and too butch," said James Robert Parish, author of Rosie: Rosie O'Donnell's Biography. But, like others, he noted that what's held consistent through it all is her reputation for honesty, her very public adoration of Tom Cruise notwithstanding.
"People feel, on the whole, that she's being very truthful in what she's saying," Parish said from his home in Studio City, Calif. "Her emotions may get the best of her, but they feel it's coming from her heart."
The public spats that have resulted from that truthfulness have undeniably been good for the show. The most bitter and personal was with Trump, whom O'Donnell called a "snake-oil salesman" because he did not dethrone Miss USA Tara Conner after she admitted to underage drinking.
O'Donnell attacked Trump for having several marriages and questioned his morality and financial stability. Trump fired back, calling O'Donnell a "loser" and an "extremely unattractive woman both inside and out."
But in criticizing O'Donnell's appearance, Trump may have lost more fans than he won. Ratings for his show The Apprentice have fallen over the years, while O'Donnell only gained viewers on The View.
In any case, viewers seem to appreciate talk show hosts who don't stand a chance of making People's 50 Most Beautiful list, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. (Just ask Larry King.)
"If you're going to play this role of somebody you could be having a conversation with over the fence," Thompson said, "you want someone who looks like they could live over the fence from you."
Filling a void on the 'View'
After high-profile departures during the past year, The View will have to up the ante to keep viewers abuzz. Here are our picks for Rosie O'Donnell's replacement,
Katie Couric: The View might be jthe chance she?s looking for after her difficult run as evening new anchor. On The View she can feel free to speak freely about Iran, her love life, whatever!.
Paula Abdul: The View never made much sense anyway. Son an incoherent Abdul could thrust the show into the statosphere of surreal. Think of the You Tube clips.
lonelygirl15: Jessica Lee Rose. who rose to fame via YouTube is young, attractive, and The View could really use someone who can explain the viral generation to all those moms in the audience.
Britney Spears: It?s about time The View had someone who could talk about the challenges of life as a stay-at-rehab mom. Also, she might show up on a Monday with a weird hair.
Courtney Love: Not sure whether she?s due in court any time soon, but Love is more than capable of starting public feuds a la Rosie-Trump.