Larry King's replacement should have guff


It's been the week of eclipse -- not only the "Twilight" sequel, which is sizzling at the boxoffice, but also of personalities, as in Larry King.

The talk show host has decided, or was gently prodded to decide by his bosses at CNN, that it's time after 25 years in the saddle, as he puts it, "to hang up the suspenders."

What's happened with and to him is what's sweeping Corporate America: His ratings no longer warrant his primetime position, and his paycheck -- rumored to be as high as in the $10 million range -- is way out of sync with the belt-tighteners in the accounting backrooms.

King's exit also reflects the ongoing retooling at the cable news channel, which has seen its ratings decline 30% or even 40% year-over-year depending on the metric, chunk of the day or demo one chooses. All of the net's primetime hosts, including John King and Anderson Cooper, have seen their numbers slide. Another primetime anchor, Campbell Brown, recently turned in her mike. King's performance this year averages 745,000 viewers, down 36% from 2009, and only 199,000 adults 25-54, off 38% from 2009.

Not that it was always so. Despite the twilight, King has broken a lot of records, seeming most proud of the Guinness Book record for longest-running talk show in the same slot on the same network: 25 years. CNN used to pivot around King, giving him enormous leeway in terms of the kind of show he would do and even building identical sets in Los Angeles, New York and D.C. to accommodate him.

As impressive as King's streak is, it just doesn't resonate with viewers anymore.

Thing is, those coming up are not at all reverential about where and when one is on, or how long one has been there. Track records, well, they're for the folks who like to track things, but not really for anyone else.

Once the lone round-the-clock global news network, CNN now must contend with rivals on either flank -- Rupert Murdoch's hopped-up Fox News Channel routinely eating its lunch and GE's MSNBC taking occasional bites out of its other side. There also are the national or supra-national news services abroad that have sprung up to beam their own information services to their constituencies.

It was in a time of war that CNN thrived, especially during the Gulf War -- remember King quizzing Wolf Blitzer and Bernard Shaw as they ducked bombs? -- but also through to the invasion of Iraq.

Age, well, it does catch up with one -- Iraq, Afghanistan and King included.

When clips of King in earlier decades are shown, the hunch of the shoulders and the tilt of the body are more eager, the acid on the tongue a little sharper.

With the newsmakers of the day -- from King's first appearance on CNN with New York Gov. Mario Cuomo through the Reagans and eventually the Clintons -- the indefatigable interviewer held his own. And got something, sometimes a lot, out of his guests.

Things weren't always overtly sexy or fluffy, a la Paris Hilton or Lady Gaga, to draw an audience. During the mid-'90s, the political debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, of all things, was a huge ratings grabber, and King was right in the thick of it.

But it's been awhile since a guest chose "Larry King Live" to do what Ross Perot did in 1991: declare his candidacy for the presidency.

There are just too many options open to politicians and personalities nowadays to shape and deliver their messages, including what we are bound to see much more of: the famous taking charge of their own communication with viewers via social media or their own websites. (They'll still need crisis managers, but PR people?)

It's also been awhile since probing questions were a King stock in trade. Guests don't go on his show to play hardball but rather to field a few lobs, though sometimes they land surprisingly.

The uncharitable are saying that for the past few years, King, 76, seemed to be "phoning it in," trying to make a virtue out of shooting from the hip or even being purposefully unprepared.

But in a more edgy, aggressive news cycle, that stance can be downright sonorific.

We've become an ever more impatient lot, and whether we blame the invasiveness of the Internet, reality TV or the cynicism that comes from too many real-life scandals washing up onshore too quickly, what works most easily is anchors with attitude, newshounds with teeth, gabbers with guff.

At least on the cable news channels, that seems the recipe that works at night: More O'Reillys, Becks, Matthewses, Olbermanns, Cramers.

The big question is should CNN simply add more pepper to its own sauce or go for some entirely different dish? Neither fish nor fowl, neither Katie Couric nor Ryan Seacrest? Better might be something or someone (or a rotating roster of someones) who can bring something different, something fresher, to the mix.

Intriguing on its own, but also for how it will set the tone for the lead-out King slot, is how the newsmakers show with Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker will perform. (Whatever the eyebrows raised about Spitzer, no one doubts his smarts; at issue is how his perceived arrogance will figure.)

Whatever happens, and it's likely to be soon, this guessing game over the man (or woman) who would be King will be the most-watched replacement move since the brouhaha over Leno and O'Brien.

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