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What Kelly Ripa’s Situation Reveals About TV and Women Stars

6 minute read
Eliana Dockterman is a correspondent at TIME. She covers culture, society, and gender, including topics from blockbuster movies to the #MeToo movement to how the pandemic pushed moms out of the workplace.

By now, you’ve heard the story: Michael Strahan and ABC reportedly informed Strahan’s Live! With Kelly & Michael co-host Kelly Ripa that he would be leaving the show for Good Morning America just minutes before the official announcement. She didn’t host the show for the rest of the week in what ABC called “a previously scheduled vacation,” from which she will return on Tuesday, but many insiders are calling her absence a protest. If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s happened before.

No, I’m not talking about the time that Ripa’s first co-host on the ABC morning show, Regis Philbin, reportedly did the exact same thing and told her of his departure just 20 minutes before making the on-air announcement. I’m referring instead to the extensive list of female TV hosts and anchors who have been disrespected by various networks: Ann Curry, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, Connie Chung and Christiane Amanpour, to name a few.

“There’s a long history of women in the top echelons of television being disrespected and being mismanaged,” says Brian Stelter, senior media correspondent at CNN and author of Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV. These women have been ignored, mocked and sometimes forced off their own shows by overwhelmingly male executives. Publicists for Live! With Kelly & Michael and WABC did not respond to a request for comment.

I’m not the first to have brought up the sexism problem. Others have written about the loaded words used to describe Ripa, and Twitter users are questioning ABC’s behavior. Whether or not we can blame sexism for this particular slip up, it’s time for networks to re-examine how they treat women.

In this case, ABC’s stealth switcheroo seems to have angered Ripa, who stepped out of her apartment building last week clutching Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. The media has taken to discussing Ripa in coded terms. Diva! Angry! Hysterics! “Is Supersweet Kelly Ripa Secretly a Diva?” Slate asked in one headline. “How Kelly Ripa Could Pay the Price for a Diva Act,” TheWrap wrote in another. “Kelly Ripa ‘Went Crazy’ When She Heard Michael Strahan Was Leaving Live!,” wrote People. “Kelly Ripa Had a Total Metdown Over Strahan’s Betrayal,” wrote Page Six. The language echoes the gendered headlines that pitted Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric in a “cat fight.

These are multi-millionaire mega-stars jockeying with billion-dollar companies for coveted spots on television, that is true. The industry has always been cut-throat, for men and women, and everyone is scrutinized—think back to David Gregory’s difficult and drawn-out departure on Meet the Press.

But it’s hard to ignore the optics. It’s a man’s world. Men still make up most of the network executives and executive producers on morning television—despite the fact that the morning show audience is primarily female. The executives at Disney and ABC are a mix of men and women. (James Goldsten, the head of news, made the email announcement about Strahan. ABC Owned Television Station Group and ABC Daytime President Rebecca Campbell is a woman.)

Still the business, as a whole, is certainly dominated by men: the executive producers at almost every major show are male, and the nightly news anchors at all the major networks are, once again, all men. And when you put Ripa’s treatment in broad context, an ugly pattern emerges of an industry in which female TV power brokers are taken for granted, or outright disrespected.

Take Ann Curry. As reported in Stelter’s book, in 2012 NBC executives forced out the co-host of the Today show in an endeavor they codenamed “Operation Bambi.” (A term both demeaning to Curry and juvenile, as if conceived by a 10-year-old boy pretending to be James Bond.) They reportedly mocked her with blooper reels, joked about her work on set and generally treated her terribly. Curry eventually signed off with a tearful goodbye on live television, apologizing for “not carrying the ball across the finish line.” When the show received criticism for not handling Curry’s exit better, Today’s own publicist reportedly tried to persuade brass to issue an apology, but they supposedly declined, saying she didn’t need a big sendoff because she wasn’t actually leaving the network. (She eventually did, two years later.)

“There are some similarities [between the Kelly Ripa situation and the] Ann Curry debacle insofar as, What are the appropriate ways to treat a female television star?” says Stelter who investigated Operation Bambi in his book. “I hesitate to pin this on ABC or any one network because there are some really talented female producers. But there’s no doubt that in the television industry writ-large, there is a boys’ club atmosphere in many, but not all, control rooms.”

And then there’s Connie Chung, who was unceremoniously dropped from evening news in 1995, and Dan Rather hosted by himself. When she claimed that the decision was driven by sexism, some commentators’ knee-jerk reaction was to call her accusations “shaky” and “unwarranted.” (CBS also refuted her claims, saying the dual anchors “simply did not work out,” as the New York Times put it.)

On news programs, women often suffer a similar fate, says Sheila Weller, author of The News Sorority. Weller says that icons like Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour worked twice as hard for half the credit.

“When Katie [Couric] came to CBS, she took a lot of crap, a lot of crap. I mean, there was a period when everybody hated her—the media, people in her own network, people on other networks, she just couldn’t catch a break until the Sarah Palin interview. And she has amazing work ethic,” says Weller. “Christiane Amanpour—she made CNN. It was called Chicken Noodle News before she did her Bosnia reporting. And she came back and wanted her own show. She didn’t even want a nightly show: she wanted an afternoon show. That’s not asking that much for somebody who is so incredibly respected. And she lost out to Fareed Zakaria. She was pissed off and had a right to be pissed off.” Weller reported Amanpour’s dissatisfaction in her book.

There is one notable recent exception, if disrespect can be called a rule. “Megyn Kelly has completely broken the rules,” Weller says. “And on Fox of all places.” The host of The Kelly File rose to prominence and dominance during her 12 years at Fox. When she came into conflict with Donald Trump, her network stood behind her. And she feels confident enough in her standing to state in a recent interview that she’ll keep her “options open” when her contract is up at Fox.

When it comes to Ripa, it seems clear that ABC failed one of its stars. Even Philbin has said his former network flubbed in a TMZ video Thursday, “I know what it is. They should have told her earlier.”

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com

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