Larry King announced on his program Tuesday that he would end his nightly CNN program in the fall. But in terms of cultural significance, the reign of “Larry King Live” unofficially ended some time ago.
Emblematic of a different era, King’s departure doubtless leaves CNN apprehensive but also breathing a sigh of relief, as the host’s ratings drifted downward and his personal life recently yielded another trip
through the tabloid headlines.
King deserves credit for longevity, but his stint has never exactly been characterized by a consistent commitment to hard-hitting interviews. It was, rather, the safe place for a celebrity or world figure — notorious or otherwise — to go lay out their side of a story.
Cable news, however, has shifted on its axis in recent years, favoring opinion-oriented hosts as the market fragmented into segments of people largely looking for someone to echo their own views. And while King certainly wasn’t above pandering occasionally to titillating and pop-culture sensibilities, the drift in that direction also made the “gets” that any TV news host can claim drift farther from the halls of Washington and closer to the “Jersey Shore.”
King stressed that he isn’t retiring, just reducing his on-air role, and in a statement, CNN said that King “defined the art of the television interview.” That’s gracious of his bosses, but a gross overstatement of his contribution to a medium populated by the likes of Ted Koppel, Mike Wallace and (in her own unique way) Barbara Walters. The real question is where the cable network goes now with a prominent primetime void to fill — and a new program, featuring former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and columnist Kathleen Parker, due to premiere in the fall as well. (Based on recent history, perhaps former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and John Edwards should stay close to their phones.)
“I hope you’re doing this of your own volition,” Bill Maher, King’s guest, said after the on-air announcement. King assured him that it was.
What’s clear is that King’s chair — while still potentially attractive to any number of broadcast journalists — is no longer the perch that it once represented. To restore it, CNN is going to have to begin from scratch and pull the entire network up by its bootstraps — or if you prefer, by its suspenders.