What killed Larry King?

Nobody wants a mellow host anymore, at least not on cable news

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Rush Limbaugh helped drive Larry King off the radio; his successors may have ended King’s career in TV. When the CNN host announced that Larry King Live would end this fall, after 25 years as the cable network’s flagship, it wasn’t a huge surprise. His ratings have dropped by 40 per cent in the last year, and comedians constantly made fun of his lack of knowledge; Jerry Seinfeld mocked him to his face for not knowing Seinfeld was still popular when it went off the air. Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, says he watches Larry King “the way I used to watch American Idol for Paula Abdul.” Still, when King’s bad suspenders go off the air, so will what Thompson calls “middle of the road” pundit shows. From now on, TV news may be all opinion, all the time.

Before he became CNN’s guy, the gruff-voiced King was a huge success on radio, with a similar format of long-form interviews. But by the time he ended his radio show in 1994, he couldn’t compete with hosts like Limbaugh, who offered high-energy segments perfect for car listening. After King, talk radio adopted a faster pace: “Even NPR doesn’t do interviews of the length that Larry King does,” Thompson says. Now fast-paced, punchy shows have taken over TV, where King is losing to Fox News’s Hannity, where a conservative talk-radio host rails against left-wing conspiracies and The Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC’s liberal answer to Hannity.

Unlike those hosts, King still does an old-fashioned general-interest show with an eclectic mix of guests: politicians, movie stars, reality show contestants, and ordinary people in the news. Ross Perot announced his presidential candidacy on King, but other big moments were non-political: when “Balloon Boy” Falcon Heene revealed that his parents staged the incident for TV, it was on Larry King Live (with a substitute host).

Though he was known for his refusal to prepare for interviews—leading to the famous episode where he called Ringo Starr “George”— it didn’t matter, because his guests were so big. “The greatest accomplishment he had in his career was as a booking agent,” Thompson says. Though his lack of knowledge about his guests may actually have been an advantage: people came on his show because he rarely confronted them.

But nobody wants a non-confrontational host now, at least not on cable news. Hosts like Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Maddow try to “nail” unsympathetic guests by getting them to say something embarrassing, as Maddow did when she got Rand Paul to say he disagreed with portions of the Civil Rights Act. Their shows try to be exciting every night, while King’s is mostly mellow—too mellow, it seems, to hold an audience.

The biggest problem for King, though, may have been that his show was different every night depending on who the guests were. Fox and MSNBC’s shows aim to brand themselves for politics junkies. But with King, Thompson explains, “the type of person that might really want to watch on the night he interviews the Bachelor might be very different from the person who wants to sit through an interview with a general in Afghanistan.” Even mainstream network talk show hosts like Letterman and Leno load up with comedy acts and recurring sketches to distract us from the fact that we might not like that night’s guest; with King, Thompson says, “the interview is the show.”

There are signs that CNN has already started moving away from that emphasis on guests: the show before King will now be co-hosted by Eliot Spitzer, a combative personality more famous than many of the people he’ll be interviewing. Most of the buzz about potential King replacements focuses on interviewers with a slightly more partisan bent, like The View’s Joy Behar or America’s Got Talent’s Piers Morgan (who was the designated liberal on an interview show in his native Britain). King himself has said that he’d like to see Ryan Seacrest get the job, but only “if he has a great interest in politics.” The days are gone when a host could succeed, like King, without showing much interest in anything.

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