Accuracy in Media

Larry King has been a fixture on CNN for 25 years.  But his longevity has become a liability for the network as both his ratings and his ability have noticeably slipped.

From the New York Times

At the beginning of June, CNN’s Larry King celebrated 25 years in the same slot on the same network — a remarkable achievement in a come-and-go business — and was joined over a week by Bill Gates, LeBron James and the leader of the free world to mark the occasion. Not bad for a former color commentator of the Shreveport Steamer of the World Football League.

The most exciting get of the week had to be Lady Gaga, the incandescent pop star and performance artist. During the interview, however, the person in black suspenders and white shirt sought a connection across generations, evincing both earnestness and playfulness, but was forced to communicate with someone imprisoned in a character, offering little more than a performance piece full of aphorisms and nervous laughter.

Maybe you saw this coming, but it was Lady Gaga who wore those trademark suspenders in tribute (she called him “King Larry”). She appeared via a satellite feed from London, but Mr. King may as well have been dialing in from a distant solar system. He blew past several surprising answers without follow-up and ambled on to the next canned question. “Is there any boundary you won’t cross?” he asked portentously, without mentioning any that she had.

In Lady Gaga, Mr. King had a willing, wildly famous subject. If he can no longer hit a hanging curve ball over the middle of the plate, shouldn’t CNN be thinking hard about who is on deck?

As my colleague Brian Stelter reported last month, Mr. King’s audience has been cut in half since the presidential election, to an average of just 725,000 viewers a night, a number that ranked him far behind Sean Hannity on Fox News, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC and even at times behind the relatively new “Joy Behar Show” on HLN, CNN’s sister network.

Mr. King’s contract is up a year from now, and while CNN had no specific comment on succession, a spokeswoman did remind us that Mr. King is still a force, regardless of what the ratings say:

“The world has never seen a better or more influential talk show host than Larry King,” said Christa Robinson, the spokeswoman. “While the media regurgitates speculation about his coveted role, Larry is busy organizing a telethon on Monday night to raise money to help clean up the gulf the way he raised nearly $10 million for Haiti earthquake relief a few months ago. That kind of influence and impact is exceedingly rare.”

It’s nice that the network is supportive of a talent that helped build its identity, but is this really how CNN wants this all to play out? It’s not as if the idea that Mr. King’s reign might end came out of nowhere. He has always been a bit of a cartoon, but a willing one, and he made for good television as he wobbled his way toward greater truths using a regular-guy approach to inordinately famous or newsworthy people. Not any more.

On Thursday night, he took on BP’s Congressional testimony with four highly politicized commentators and failed to tame the lions. Each segment ended in unwatchable cross-talk. Earlier in the week, he stepped up on the gulf story by interviewing Sammy Kershaw, a country singer and candidate for lieutenant governor of Louisiana, but seemed powerless as Mr. Kershaw kidnapped the show by reading a windy infomercial about the glories of gulf seafood from notes scribbled on a piece of paper.

In the same week, his show tacked to the tabloid side of the news, with interviews of the family of the slain Peruvian woman, a death for which Joran van der Sloot has been charged. Mr. Van der Sloot is a suspect in the earlier, much followed disappearance of the Alabama teenager Natalee Holloway in Aruba.

The interview was a weave of long pauses and odd pivots — “How well did you know your sister-in-law?” — that looked and sounded more like cable access than the work of a cable powerhouse.

No one will replace Mr. King. As Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University points out, Mr. King is part old-school broadcaster and part vaudeville act, more Ed Sullivan than Edward R. Murrow. But a segue, some kind of plan, seems merited.

“When you tune in and watch Larry King interviewing Lady Gaga and he seems to be the more Dada performance artist, that speaks volumes,” Mr. Thompson said. “Larry King has always been a bit of a punch line, but you don’t want him to become a joke.”

It may be too late for that.  As with the Helen Thomas who hung around far past her prime because no one had the guts to tell her that she was no longer much of a journalist the same can be said for King whose iconic status at CNN has left the network with an aging host whose command of the subject matter has deteriorated along wit his ratings.

If CNN wants to dig themselves out from under the bottom of the cable news ratings pile then they need to make some tough decisions and one of the first would be to part company with King.

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