Deborah Norville is a TV survivor. In March, she’ll celebrate her 20th anniversary of hosting Inside Edition and recently extended her contract for another two years.
During a trip to Texas a few months ago, we met with Norville for a breakfast interview at the Four Seasons in Houston, where she covered topics ranging from why the show has a following among randy young men to what she learned from Joan Rivers.
In person, Norville has the same down-home conversational style she exhibits on the show (which airs daily at 2:30 pm on WFAA), along with impeccable Southern manners (she periodically thanks the waiter) honed from growing up in Georgia. The 56-year-old news veteran co-hosted the Today show, hosted a radio show and was a CBS News correspondent before replacing Bill O’Reilly as host of Inside Edition in 1995.
CultureMap: What have you discovered on this Texas tour to promote Inside Edition?
Deborah Norville: When I come to Texas, it’s a lot like being at home, because I’m from north Georgia. And I think Texans and Georgians are very similar. We share the same views on guns. Living in New York, you can’t really talk about it very loudly.
It’s the same friendliness. For me it’s very cozy. It’s just like being in a big giant hug because people in Texas, they just can’t do enough for you.
There’s such a good food culture here. My biggest beef is I’m not here long enough to really enjoy it.
CM: Why has the show been successful?
DN: You have to recognize that if you don’t evolve, you become extinct. It’s like a dinosaur. If you look at the shows on the air when I came on board, A Current Affair was still on TV, Hard Copy, American Journal. These shows are all gone now. One of the reasons we’re still here is we’ve evolved in a way that we think the audience has evolved.
When I first came in they did a lot of these very tabloid — I call them, “Beach Blanket Bingo” stories. There wasn’t a spring break they didn’t cover, and they’d zoom in on the cleavage and the drunken children on the beach.
We know that happens, but how is my life being enhanced or my knowledge base being increased by this? And it just wasn’t. It was gratuitous and it was kind of stupid. The audience might have been interested in that at the beginning, but they had their fill of it.
And so we moved beyond that. What we tell people now is you can get the highlights of what the celebrities are doing by watching Inside Edition because we will give you just a little tidbit of what that is. But what you’ll get from us is stories that make you laugh, that touch the heartstrings, a lot more lifestyle stories.
CM: But some people still think of Inside Edition as a tabloid show. What do you tell advertisers?
DN: We tell them we’re the best vehicle to get to clients you want to reach: women. And we do very well with men 18-34. That’s a tough demo to reach.
CM: Why do young men watch the show?
DN: I’ve been told I’m a MILF. I think it’s the MILF factor. My son is 19; he says that’s what he hears from his friends. It’s disgusting, but I’ll take it. And we do enough jazzy stories that appeal to a lot of demographics.
We’re very strong with women 25-54 that advertisers want to reach. We do stories that touch your heart and have some sort of deeper meaning that you will have for your life.
And we almost always end the show with some stupid animal moment. Whether it’s a roller skating squirrel or Skeeter the Narcoleptic Dog — every time he got excited, he would conk out. Skeeter had a very timely end. He was crossing the street and got excited and feel asleep and got hit by a car. I don’t think we put that on TV, but that was actually what happened.
CM: I didn’t realize you were such close friends with Joan Rivers until I learned you gave one of the eulogies at her funeral. The outpouring of affection for her was amazing.
DN: Joan would have been blown away by this. I don’t think she had any idea of the depth of that affection. Joan Rivers was one of the biggest celebrities in the world and yet there was something about Joan, about her honesty, about her candor, the ups and downs of her life that everyone could relate to, even though they’ll never be at Buckingham Palace with Prince Charles.
CM: Prince Charles liked her so much.
DM: She is so honest. She doesn’t care if you are prince. She said all kinds of terrible stuff in front of him and he just laughed. In fact I will show you a picture. [She locates a photo on her cellphone of her and husband Carl with Prince Charles and Camilla.]
I wanted to have something close. We were at Clarence House and she was saying something ridiculous. Carl and I are falling over laughing, and the Prince is thinking this is the funniest thing in the world.
CM: When was it taken?
DM: Maybe seven or eight years ago. It was several faces ago. She used to joke when [grandson)] Cooper was little he called her “Nana Newface.”
People saw Joan struggle and they saw their own struggles in Joan and they saw how she rebuilt herself. And she wouldn’t take any crap from anybody. She lived life according to her own terms. I think we would all like to do that.
CM: What did you learn from her?
DN: More than anything else, Joan was a teacher. She taught us how to live life fearlessly. She taught us how to live life by our rules. She taught us how to dust ourselves off and pick ourselves up and keep on going again.
But she also taught us to make sure that at the end — whenever that end should be — that there will be no question about what you want. Joan was very specific about what she considered a quality of life. And she gave a great deal of thought to it and she made sure that many people knew what she considered a better quality of life. And if it was clear [to daughter Melissa] there was no question that this is what mom wants.
And that is a gift that family members can get. And now I’ve learned that from Joan.