Television: Howard Kurtz on timing of Larry King's retirement, successor

hail and farewell: Larry King arrives at the White House correspondents' dinner. He'll wrap up
hail and farewell: Larry King arrives at the White House correspondents' dinner. He'll wrap up "Larry King Live" this fall. (Linda Davidson/the Washington Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Woody Allen said 90 percent of life is just showing up. The other 10 percent might be knowing when to leave.

By announcing Tuesday that he's giving up his CNN gig after 25 years, Larry King was able to say he was leaving on his own terms, even if others believe he was nudged.

For most television stars "it's almost impossible to walk away," says Steve Friedman, a former producer of "Today" and "The Early Show." "It's the narcotic they live for. You don't want to be walking down the street and have someone say, 'Didn't you used to be. . . . ?' " Others say the 76-year-old broadcaster wore out his welcome. "It was time for him to go gently into the night," says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "The Lady Gaga interview was kind of goofy. He was dangerously close to becoming a self-parody."

King's decision to surrender his franchise this fall has sparked a speculation sweepstakes about a successor, as well as a debate over whether his format -- a variety show that careened from presidential interviews to Madonna -- can survive in today's fragmented and polarized media world. A "middlebrow" program "is really hard to pull off in this age," says industry analyst Andrew Tyndall. "Larry King tried to straddle everything, and I think that's increasingly difficult."

Piers Morgan, a former editor of London's Daily Mirror and News of the World but best known in the United States as a judge on "America's Got Talent," is seen by some CNN and industry insiders as most likely to inherit the program. Although King has endorsed Ryan Seacrest, the "American Idol" host might lack the chops for political interviews. Other names, from Katie Couric to Ellen DeGeneres to Joy Behar, are being tossed around.

In ending his reign, King avoided the fate of Jay Leno (eased out of "The Tonight Show" but brought back after the Conan O'Brien debacle); Dan Rather (who sued CBS after being forced out over the National Guard documents fiasco); David Brinkley (who slammed Bill Clinton on his final election night), and Helen Thomas (who told a rabbi that the Israelis should "get the hell out of Palestine").

"Larry's leaving in a way that he can celebrate his great success and go on to other successes," says Tammy Haddad, a former King producer who now runs a Washington media company. "He's an appealing interviewer, and people want to talk to him. People have counted him out before, but he's always proven to be resilient." King says he will do three years of periodic specials for CNN, unrelated to his current contract; he will also be free to contribute to other networks.

Some entertainers -- notably Johnny Carson, who virtually disappeared after his 30-year "Tonight" run, and Jerry Seinfeld, who halted his hugely popular sitcom -- have left the audience wanting more. But the journalism game tends to be more forgiving of advanced age. Barbara Walters is 80; Andy Rooney is 91.

"News is a genre that is less ruthless than other genres in obliging people to retire," Tyndall says. "You're more likely as a news person to hang around beyond your sell-by date. And the audience is older in news."

But even in news divisions, there are smooth transitions (Tom Brokaw's handoff to Brian Williams) and disastrous transitions (Deborah Norville seen as an interloper after Jane Pauley left "Today"). Had King battled to keep his job, CNN might have shown him the door when his contract expires next year.

King said in an interview Tuesday that he isn't giving up the show because his audience has declined by nearly half in the past year, or because of the well-publicized problems with his seventh wife, Shawn Southwick. But it is hard to imagine he'd be leaving at the moment if he were beating Fox's Sean Hannity and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in the Nielsen ratings. One friend says King gave no indication of wanting to step down during a conversation several weeks ago.

The danger of waiting too long is that viewers tend to notice. King may not have lost his fastball, since that pitch was never in his repertoire, but there have been moments when he seemed culturally disconnected, such as when he called Ringo Starr "George" during a 2007 interview.

Does a prime-time chat show have a future when opinionated hosts of the left and right draw strongly partisan audiences? When "Larry King Live" began in 1985, pop culture scholar Thompson says, there were few places on prime-time television to see celebrities informally shooting the breeze. "Now there are so many venues to get this kind of stuff," he says.

But since all you need is a desk, some decent bookings and a reasonably hip host, Thompson says, "I can't imagine this format couldn't work into the 22nd century."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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