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During a presentation to advertisers last week in New York City, CNN trotted out many of its big names: Anderson Cooper, John King, Sanjay Gupta, Candy Crowley, Nancy Grace and Wolf Blitzer, among them.
Larry King, host of what is still one of the network’s top-rated shows, appeared only in a film clip that flashed by for a second or two.
These are troubled times for “Larry King Live” as it approaches its 25th anniversary in June. The show’s viewership for the first three months of the year dropped 44 percent from 2009, and it usually trails Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in the time slot.
Once a pioneer, King now fights for relevancy.
There was a time when such a thought would be heresy.
“In the early days of the 1980s and 1990s, that was the place to go to get interviewed,” television historian Tim Brooks said. “Any politician, including presidential candidates, had to be on his show. That brought a lot of respect to CNN, and to cable as well.”
King moderated a memorable 1993 debate between Ross Perot and Vice President Al Gore. He even tried to mediate peace in the Middle East, bringing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan and Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin together on a show. His influence was equally big with entertainers. A list of bold-faced names who had sat across the table from King would take in practically everyone in the entertainment business.
In those days, Larry King was New Media. Today, entertainers have many options, from visiting hip hosts such as Jon Stewart to maintaining their own Twitter feeds. King was never a challenging interviewer, but now politicians can find downright friendly ones.
It leaves King with pleasant but meandering chats with Willie Nelson, or the chance to talk to Martina Navritolova about her cancer treatment. On the day Conan O’Brien agreed to go to TBS, King brought three reporters in to chat about it.
Think about it. When was the last must-see Larry King interview?
For a network based in Atlanta and with a large New York office, King usually works out of Los Angeles. His executive producer since 1992, Wendy Walker, works from her home in San Diego, where CNN has built a control room for her. Some who know King suggested that’s a disconnected arrangement, and wonder whether he is getting the support he needs in booking and promotion. If you see an ad for CNN, it’s far more likely to feature Cooper or Blitzer.
CNN would not make King, Walker or network president Jon Klein available for interviews.
In a statement, King spokesman Ryan Jimenez said, “Ratings trend just as the competitors, but what distinguishes Larry is the fact that time and time again the biggest newsmakers continue to talk with the King because he’s fair and unbiased. We’re extremely proud of what Larry accomplishes night after night.”
King’s simple, conversational style often annoys people who want interviews with more rigor and preparation. His supporters believe the everyman approach has been underestimated but worry that King, at age 76, is losing a step. Mistaking Roman Polanski for Charles Manson earlier this year was cringe-worthy. Last week, King seemed unaware of “Family Guy.” And when he asked Jerry Seinfeld if his popular sitcom was canceled, it became an Internet embarrassment.
“It’s almost as if he’s interviewing on automatic pilot and he’s picking up a ball game through his fillings,” said Gail Shister, who teaches TV criticism at the University of Pennsylvania.
King is also going through a divorce with his seventh wife, Shawn King. He filed papers Wednesday shortly before she also sought to end the couple’s nearly 13-year-old marriage. Both cited “irreconcilable differences.”
His show averaged 759,000 viewers the first three months of the year, according to the Nielsen Co. That’s less than half of his peak year, in 1998, when “Larry King Live” drew 1.64 million viewers each night. As recently as 2003, King averaged 1.54 million.
CNN contends he’s been hurt this year by a slow news cycle compared to the busy first few months of the Obama administration in 2009. Other news shows are down, too, both on CNN and MSNBC. Direct competitor Maddow is down 38 percent. Only Fox News Channel has been flourishing lately.
King shows no indication of wanting to leave, and takes great pride in an upcoming citation by the Guinness Book of World Records in June as the longest-running host of the same show on the same network in the same time slot. He’s been in broadcasting more than 50 years. “I’m basically still just a little Jewish kid from Brooklyn,” he told students at George Washington University last month. “I still do enjoy it.”
CNN hasn’t shown any signs that it wants him out. Remember, “Larry King Live” is still one of the network’s most popular programs and the network has bigger problems with which to deal.
King has no heir apparent, either; no regular substitute host. Klein has made a point of saying that when King leaves, CNN is not tied to plugging a different person into the same kind of show.
Circumstances could force a change. What if Katie Couric decides to leave CBS News when her contract is up next year and expresses an interest in that slot? Cooper is a CNN favorite and might work better in an earlier time slot. Joy Behar’s talk show on the affiliated HLN network has done well and her string of one-liners made her popular with the advertisers this week.
Some have suggested a slow transition with King, not unlike what ABC has done with Barbara Walters. Relieve him of daily duties, yet have him conduct special interviews several times a year.
With an audience dominated by older viewers, easing someone out is fraught with peril.
“Larry is a legacy there,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief now a professor at George Washington University. “They have to handle this very, very carefully. Any time there is someone of Larry King’s stature, they are going to have a big, loyal, dedicated following. That’s the base. And the first rule of politics is not to alienate your base.”