tv reporter

O'Donnell's departure a pre-emptive strike?

Rosie O'Donnell likes a good conspiracy theory. This we know from her penchant for spinning a good yarn from her perch on ABC's "The View," like her recent on-air suggestion that secretly placed explosives were responsible for bringing down World Trade Center 7 on Sept. 11. Now that she is stepping down from the ABC daytime series, the world will sorely miss her sage wisdom.

But one good conspiracy deserves another, so here goes: I don't buy for one minute that she is leaving "View" because of stalled contract negotiations. I think the network dumped her.

Hear me out before you assume I'm nuttier than O'Donnell. I already know what you're going to say: Why would ABC jettison the show's star attraction? O'Donnell is pretty much single-handedly responsible for the dramatic ratings increase "View" registered during the course of the year she spent there.

But ask yourself what ABC was risking by keeping O'Donnell on the air. Yes, the most controversial of her bizarre musings on Donald Trump, the Iraq War and Asian speech patterns generated a ton of free publicity for the show. But surely in the wake of the Don Imus fiasco, Walt Disney Co. execs must have been looking at O'Donnell and wondering just how much longer this time bomb was going to tick before exploding in their faces.

Sky-high ratings don't matter much if advertisers get shy about associating their products with a loose cannon.

O'Donnell has been flirting with the outer edges of broadcast content boundaries for quite some time. Now that Imus has brought those lines into sharper focus, it seems she would have inevitably uttered something so inappropriate that "nappy-headed hos" would seem like a Hallmark card sentiment.

Imus might be an obvious comparison, but there is another person who offers a more direct parallel: Bill Maher. O'Donnell's cringe-worthy style is not new territory for ABC, which sent Maher packing from his late-night series, "Politically Incorrect," not long after he practically complimented the terrorists in the wake of Sept. 11.

My theory may seem even loonier in light of the fact that both O'Donnell and ABC have stated that their relationship will continue on a limited basis after she leaves "View" in June, in the form of guest appearances on the program and special episodes on subjects like depression. But it is within the realm of possibility that ABC would rather be seen playing nice with O'Donnell than heaving her overboard, which would have ignited a media frenzy of Imusian proportions. Chalk up her departure to contractual disagreements, and no one seems like the bad guy. ABC won't look like a censor, and O'Donnell won't look like a maniac.

It's hard to believe it would be coincidental that O'Donnell's exit is coming the same week as a highly publicized appearance she made in Manhattan at a Women in Communications luncheon during which she grabbed her crotch, uttered profanity and made fun of News Corp. overlord Rupert Murdoch to his face. If you're Disney CEO Robert Iger, do you start wondering if you're next?

In the wake of the luncheon fiasco, "View" doyenne Barbara Walters distanced herself from O'Donnell's remarks, as she had to do repeatedly right up until O'Donnell's on-air au revoir Wednesday. Walters claimed that she had nothing to do with O'Donnell's departure. This from a woman who news reports described as burying her face in her hands when she was present during O'Donnell's attack on Murdoch.

Too bad the only person with less credibility than O'Donnell has this all in perspective: Trump. As he told Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, "I am convinced that Disney threw her over the side, absolutely." Which leads me to write a sentence this columnist never thought would emerge from his brain: Trump is right.