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

By Tom Shales
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; C05

"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.

Anyone who has watched King's show lately may have noticed a certain aura of torpor settling in. The program has changed shockingly little in 2 1/2 decades (it celebrates its 25th anniversary in June). King is still good -- not the most aggressive or incisive interviewer in the world, not the most confrontational by a long shot, but solid and steady and asking the questions "normal" people would ask and thus want answered. But the show built around King has become creaky and leaky -- almost as if CNN execs aren't all that concerned about it crashing on shore.

In fact, says one very knowledgeable insider with many years of talk-show experience, those executives are just waiting until Larry's 25th anniversary is behind him and will then begin serious consideration of a replacement, assuming Larry will go gentle unto that good night and not make a fuss about bringing his CNN career to an end. If management were really solidly behind Larry and wanted him to stay, they would have taken steps to overhaul the show and make it more see-worthy. Instead, it's been the victim of neglect.

Likeliest candidate to take over Larry's chair: Katie Couric, who sources speculate would keep her "60 Minutes" part-time gig at CBS but relinquish anchorship of "The CBS Evening News," which has failed to catch fire despite top-flight production, correspondents and crews backing Couric up.

Would a network, even one as quixotic as CNN, actually sit by and watch one of its shows sink into the mire, especially after 25 years of relatively splashy success? Yes, says the insider, because in television the past means nothing and the future is all, and extending the life of "Larry King Live" even without Larry King seems like a solid value proposition -- a show that could be the foundation for an entire successful night of programming.

Yes, a scenario like this does suggest a considerable amount of chilly ingratitude to King, who in becoming a big star helped make CNN a big global star as well. But network executives aren't known for sentimental streaks. In fact, CNN higher-ups have hardly been conspicuous in defending and praising King on the record so as to soften the blow of the current ratings decline. Some see King as, in effect, having been hung out to dry or even, in a professional competitive sense, hung out to die.

It's no way to treat a Larry.

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