Talk about an ironic sign of the times: Ninety minutes before he was to go on the air Tuesday night, 76-year-old Larry King chose to announce his primetime resignation via Twitter. Yes, after thousands of shows spanning 25 years, after millions of words heard through car radios and television screens, it all came down to 72 characters and a bit.ly link: “Announcing tonight: I’m ending my nightly show this fall but continuing at CNN. http://bit.ly/9hBv9.”
King’s show was the staple of cable news. For 25 years, it served as the highlight of the primetime lineup for CNN – which, like Time.com, is owned by Time Warner – a must-stop for politicians and performers of every stripe. It was where news was often made, from the Ross Perot-Al Gore debate to Lady Gaga’s medical revelations. And while in later years critics took King to task for softball questions, it was his ability to get guarded high-profile guests to open up that always made his interviews stand out. While left-right commentators asked pointed questions of programmed talking heads, King seemed content to open the floor for discussion and let his guests guide the conversation. It seemed to be his goal, as infotainer, to go beyond the standard Q&A back and forth, and in turn his guests found a way to break out of their publicity-tour talking points. For a quarter century, King’s conversations have always been frank and lively.
Much has been said about the prestige and profit potential of King’s 9 p.m. time slot, as well as the host’s floundering ratings in recent years – ratings that some believe are behind his sudden departure. In the second quarter of 2010, the New York Times cites ratings of 674,000 viewers for the average Larry King Live. That’s the lowest ratings for King in at least a decade, ranking well behind shows like Hannity or The Rachel Maddow Show.
CNN president Jonathan Klein has said he will soon announce a new 9 p.m. show, to replace King in the autumn. And already, speculation has swirled about possible replacements. Katie Couric has been mentioned, as has Piers Morgan. On Tuesday night’s show, King himself said he would love to see Ryan Seacrest take the chair – though he had no idea if Seacrest had any interest in politics.
Full disclosure: Considering the fact that I was four years old when King first started on CNN, it might not surprise anyone to learn that I missed most of King’s heyday. I know Larry King the breezy conversationalist, and for the last several years I have not found much need, in this 24-7 web-based news cycle, to tune in at 9 p.m. Whatever the topic, I can probably learn more through 20 minutes of googling that I will glean from 60 minutes with Larry King.
But that said, I genuinely fear the possibility that cable news has moved beyond Larry King – that there is no longer a place, outside perhaps PBS, for an hour-long chat format. I could be wrong, but King’s plummeting ratings parallel that of other primetime CNN programs as well. Campbell Brown’s balanced look at the day’s headlines floundered in comparison to the polarized left of MSNBC and right of Fox News. Broadcast journalism, at least the sort being practiced on the major American cable news outlets, is becoming hopelessly polarized, and audiences seem to want more opinion and editorial. Less chat. They want a take on the news that reinforces their worldview, not a host who facilitates a wide-ranging conversation.
Or at least the ratings numbers seem to say as much.
No one quite knows what Klein is going to do, and he could easily swap hosts and move forward with Ryan Seacrest Live. Same time, same subjects; suspenders optional. But couldn’t he just as easily announce a shakeup of the 9 p.m. format? Most of the immediate reactions to King’s news published late Monday night focused on who will fill the big chair. But what if CNN decides not to replace Larry King, but to instead turn Larry King Live into some variation of Hardball? Is that not a real possibility?
Whether you’re a devoted viewer or casual acquaintance, Larry King filled a niche that I’d like to think can still exist in today’s cable news cycle. Call it the dinner table between the echo chambers.