For once, Barbara Walters was the one who wept.

When Walters walked into ABC’s conference room Monday to tell her “20/20” staff she would step down in the fall after 25 years, she was greeted by a standing ovation.

“It made me cry,” says Walters, 74, queen of the “get” and the tearful reaction. “It was quite touching, quite a compliment.”

A certifiable legend who has interviewed virtually every newsmaker from Fidel Castro to Monica Lewinsky, Walters will leave “20/20” as co-anchor in September to transition into what ABC calls “a special role.”

Maintaining her palatial office, Walters will do five or six news specials a year, including her annual Oscar-night telecast. She’ll continue as a regular on “The View,” which she owns and produces.

“I wanted more flexibility,” Walters says. “This gives me everything I want, without the daily pressure. I’m very excited and happy. There’s no “back story.’ No intrigue. It’s just what I’m saying.”

CBS’s Mike Wallace, 85, who cut his “60 Minutes” workload to about eight stories a year, can relate.

“I don’t blame Barbara,” Wallace says from Amsterdam, where he’s reporting a “60” piece. “She’s of a certain age now. She doesn’t want to keep getting on planes. She’s very wise to do what she’s doing.”

Walters also is weary of the increased competition for the hard-to-get interview and the emphasis on stories that will appeal to younger viewers. Celebrities draw big ratings, but don’t feed Walters’ journalistic soul.

“This is a country where we hope young people will vote, never mind care about world events,” she says. “I have gone with the change, as all the programs are doing, but it does become a pressure.

“… I’ve been fortunate because I’m well-known and get so many of them (celebrity interviews). Some, I haven’t wanted to do.”

Walters has interviewed such world leaders as China’s Jiang Zemin and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as well as every U.S. president since Richard Nixon.

Her celebrity roster ranges from Katharine Hepburn to Barbra Streisand. Walters’ 1999 heart-to-heart with Lewinsky (her first on TV) drew 48.5 million viewers – a record for a broadcast news program.

Walters also snagged the first TV interviews with actor Christopher Reeve after his paralyzing accident, with murder suspect Robert Blake, and with Martha Stewart following her indictment on obstruction of justice.

Walters had been thinking of leaving “for quite a while,” she says. “You never exactly know when is the right time. I thought of doing it last spring. Then I got Hillary (Clinton).

“Then I thought, maybe fall. I wanted to leave when I thought I was at the top, and the program was at the top. Then came Martha (Stewart). Then came Christmas. Then I sat down with (ABC News president) David Westin and said, “Let’s try to figure out the best time.”‘

Walters has 18 months remaining in her contract, with an estimated salary of more than $7 million a year. She says she’ll negotiate a new deal that includes her redefined duties.

Walters began her TV career in 1963 on NBC’s “Today,” later becoming the show’s first female cohost. She defected to ABC in 1976 as the first female co-anchor of a nightly newscast. (Her on-air pairing with Harry Reasoner was short-lived and miserable.)

Walters coanchored “20/20” with Hugh Downs until his retirement in 1999. He was replaced by ABC’s John Miller, who left the network in December 2002. “20/20” correspondent John Stossel was named co-anchor in May.

Age was not a factor in her decision, Walters says.

“My energy level, unfortunately, is just as high as it ever was.” What she looks forward to most is what she’s had precious little of during her 40-year career – time for herself.

“I want to write a book. I can finally take a trip that’s not for work, or read books that aren’t homework, or go to a movie that isn’t related to an actor’s new project. I may even be able to see a friend for lunch.”

One of those friends could be Don Hewitt, 81, creator of CBS’s “60 Minutes.” He’ll step down as executive producer after 36 seasons in June.

“In the whole history of TV, only three women have become icons – Lucille Ball, Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters,” says Hewitt, another legend. “They’re icons. They don’t need last names.”

Hewitt says he and Walters have often bemoaned the frenzy of “the get.”

“It’s a world we’ve had difficulty understanding and coming to terms with. Was our world a better world? We think it was, but who are we to sit in judgment of ourselves?

“Our world was more concerned with substance rather than glitz. I really don’t belong in the 21st century. I should have died in the 20th century and gotten it over with.”

Hewitt talked with Walters over the years about joining his “60” crew, but he never “took a real run at her.”

“I’ve got a repertory company. I don’t have any stars. I think that’s why Diane Sawyer left (for ABC). She wanted to be a star, and I didn’t think she was.”

One more thing. Walters says her office will stay the same and her door will be open. She’s designated 2 to 4 p.m. as “kvetching hours” for colleagues.

VCR alert. TCM will honor legendary actress-dancer Ann Miller Tuesday night by running four of her films and a “Private Screenings” interview with Robert Osborne taped in 1997.

Miller died Thursday at 80.

The lineup: 8 p.m., “On the Town” (1949); 10 p.m., “Private Screenings”; 11 p.m., “Easter Parade” (1948); 1 a.m., “Kiss Me Kate” (1953); 3 a.m., “Hit the Deck” (1955).

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-26-04 1938EST

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