Tom Shales on TV: Is Larry King's CNN reign nearing its end?

Talking the talk: King's ratings have dropped 44 percent.
Talking the talk: King's ratings have dropped 44 percent. (2005 Photo By Rose M. Prouser/cnn Via Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Respected U.S. newsman Larry King has filed for divorce from his country-singer wife, Shawn Southwick," the wire service story says dryly. It seems simple enough until you stop to wonder: Is "respected U.S. newsman Larry King" any relation to that guy who has a weeknight talk show on CNN?

That Larry King is known for eyeglasses with thick lenses and large frames; his alarmingly concave posture; his goofy suspenders and insistence on appearing without a suit coat; his gravely gravelly voice; the fact that he gets a haircut every day, or so Larry lore has it; and, of course, his second career as a kind of professional husband -- an apparently incurable romantic who's had one more wife than Henry VIII and is currently in the process of separating awkwardly from No. 7, Shawn Southwick.

King married the much-younger Southwick, according to published accounts, "in a hospital room in 1997 shortly before surgery to clear a clogged blood vessel." There's our Larry in a capsule -- spirit willing, flesh being patched up and sort of digitally remastered, like an old classic movie.

Larry is a romantic; like Elizabeth Taylor, he doesn't have affairs with the objects of his affection, he marries 'em. It's kind of sweet in its way, really, and a nod to traditional morality -- although one departure from morality in this latest marriage is that Southwick charged Larry with romancing her younger sister, Shannon.

That old heart of Larry's is 76, like the rest of him, and anyone who has watched American television for more than 12 minutes at a sitting lately knows that Larry's age, as well as his playboy antics, are keeping our stand-up comics busy. Though hardly a comedian, Reba McEntire began the Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday night with the kind of joke currently inescapable on the air: "Our show is going green this year," she said. "All our scripts are made from recycled Larry King divorce papers."

David Letterman can barely get through a monologue anymore without a Larry King age joke. "Saturday Night Live" often spoofs King and his persona, with cast member Fred Armisen playing the talk-show host: "Hello, I'm Larry King, and I am 90 percent shoulders," he said in a recent sketch. An update on the Iceland volcano concluded with, "An ancient pile of ash has been set adrift. But enough about my divorce."

The sad subtext is that the jokes reinforce the idea that Larry is over-the-hill or bordering on senility, when there's little if any evidence of that in his nightly performance.

Unfortunately, although Larry seems to be keeping his head above water in his personal life -- serial divorcer having become a kind of alternative lifestyle now rather than a traumatizing aberration -- things have gone suddenly sour for his nightly talk show, "Larry King Live." Long a lonely success for CNN, now even "LKL" is showing decline -- its ratings down 44 per cent from previous averages for the first quarter of 2010. Panic has ensued.

It's not uncommon for CNN shows to come in fourth, behind Fox News, MSNBC and sometimes even Headline News, the little CNN spinoff for people with smaller attention spans than a hummingbird. Larry King had been above that fray, but now appears to be part of it.

On the other hand, King's supporters point out that he is a victim to some degree of terrible lead-ins, perhaps the worst ever. "John King" at 7 p.m. is attracting "only friends and relatives," says one producer, and Campbell Brown at 8 p.m. is doing only slightly better. With lead-ins like that, "Larry King Live" has an uphill battle every night.

Under orders from his divorce lawyers, King can't make himself available for interviews these days, but a spokesman says it's important to remember that many CNN shows, and shows on other all-news cable channels like MSNBC, have experienced "double-digit drops" in ratings. "Larry has always had the lion's share of the pie," the spokesman says.

CNN is in big, big trouble and now even its once untouchable flagship, the SS Larry King, seems to be breaking up on the rocks.

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