Timing is everything: Larry King abdicates

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010; 9:24 AM

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 NBC's "Today" and "The Early Show" on CBS. "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 who is 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."

Rivals react

Keith Olbermann tweets: "Larry King is a lovely, generous man who tried, for 8 years, to convince his bosses to hire me to be his 8 PM lead-in at CNN."

Rachel Maddow: "The Larry King interview is an American institution, and nothing about the ups and downs of the cable industry and its competition from broadcast and all the other developments in our business can change that. He is an institution for a reason.

"He is also somebody who nobody in the entire industry has a bad word to say about. To have been in the business as long as he has, and to have pretty much everybody think that he is a good guy is a sort of miracle, and is a real testament to him as a person."

The Wrap is skeptical of the official version:

"Here's what we suspect: CNN has the replacement host, most likely Morgan, already signed. But it's PR 101 not to step on the departure announcement of an on-air talent with a following, so you don't provoke the ire of loyal audiences and faithful co-workers. Instead, you wait a bit. . . .

"Did King, who's a true broadcasting survivor, figure he could hang in there despite the mounting ratings problems and industry criticism? Did CNN find itself unable to either assertively push for a change or simply stand back and wait? Did either side expect that those people approached for the job would keep their mouths shut?

"Finally, did CNN and King believe that we'd accept an explanation about how King woke up one day recently and decided he wanted to spend more time with his wife, with whom he's still locked in a public, messy separation?"

Incredible shrinking Kagan

What if they held a Supreme Court confirmation hearing and the cable networks pulled the plug? Can the sound still be heard in the media forest?

On Tuesday, the first day that Elena Kagan was questioned, Fox, CNN and MSNBC were all losing interest by the afternoon. On Wednesday, they gave up any pretense of covering the hearing. I know the legal back-and-forth can get dull, but how can a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court get less coverage than Balloon Boy?

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick likes what she sees:

"One of the things that's been difficult to explain is why anyone who's ever met her -- from her students to her colleagues at Harvard to her staff at the Solicitor General's office -- lights up when talking about her. Whereas an American public that fell pretty hard for Roberts and Sotomayor has remained almost completely indifferent to Kagan. . . .

"One explanation for this is that Kagan never had a personal story that grabbed American voters by the heartstrings and dragged them into this hearing room. But the other explanation -- the one that is increasingly evident today -- is that to know Elena Kagan is to love her. This is what her boosters and students have been telling me all along: While on paper Kagan appears to be made out of, well, paper, in person she lights up a room.

"The proceedings are different from some of the most painful hearings that I have covered precisely because Kagan seems to be having some kind of a blast. It's almost impossible not to warm to her as the day progresses. For one thing, as most of the senators note, she's hilarious."

But not hilarious enough for cable, apparently.

The 'Red' head

Eleven people have been arrested as Russian spies, but only one is getting all kinds of attention. Now why do you think that is?

"We here at Mediaite . . . are going to go out on a limb and and guess the name you're going to be hearing the most in the coming weeks is 'Anna Chapman.' Why is that? Well, because Chapman is sexy and the phrase 'sexy Russian spy' is the best headline bait to come along since 'lesbian-themed bondage club.'

"The New York Post was probably the first to jump headfirst onto the sexy spy train. In their article on the capture they focused almost entirely on Chapman and her sexy, sexy exploits. The article, entitled 'Spy Ring's 'Femme Fatale,' describes Chapman as a 'flame-haired, 007-worthy beauty.' Come on, Post, Chapman is hot, but is she really Ursula Andress level?

"The more reputable news sources had to be subtler in their inclusion of the Chapman hook (at least for now). Check out this otherwise straight-forward CBS story. Nothing too sexy there, right? Except for the clear choice to have a sexy Chapman picture make up the thumbnail image for the accompanying video. . . .

"The Village Voice's Foster Kamer came up with a sure-fire traffic boon by seeking out Chapman's Facebook profile and posting some of her sexier photos (it really puts the Time Square bomber's profile to shame)."

More on Gore

Portland police have reopened an investigation into a massage therapist's four-year-old claim that Al Gore sexually assaulted her. The former vice president's spokeswoman has now issued a statement saying he "unequivocally and emphatically denied this accusation when he first learned of its existence three years ago. He stands by that denial." The AP, New York Post and New York Daily News have picked up the story.

The police decision in Oregon follows an on-the-record interview with the woman in the National Enquirer. While the Enquirer rejected a $1 million request from her lawyer last week, executive editor Barry Levine does not deny that the tabloid paid a lesser sum for the interview. "We're not going to discuss anything beyond the fact that we do practice checkbook journalism and we do sometimes pay for exclusivity," he said, adding that the massage therapist wanted to go public because "she felt victimized."

Elizabeth's TV tour

The Daily Beast's Rebecca Dana wonders why John Edwards's estranged wife keeps putting herself out there:

"Elizabeth Edwards, clearly weakened from her battle with breast cancer, uses these opportunities to discuss her search for inner peace -- and to lob a few more grenades at her dolt ex's former aide Andrew Young and baby mama Rielle Hunter, both of whom have done media blitzes of their own in the past year.

"As with last time, Hunter -- the Voldemort of mistresses -- goes unnamed, even as Edwards dredges up old dirt in this seemingly endless saga. Of the hippie-dippy videographer's appearance on Oprah Winfrey a few months back, Edwards told Matt Lauer, who notably got the first interview this time, not the Queen of Talk, 'I still think this person is so completely unlike me that it's hard to imagine the same person could marry me and be attracted to that--to that woman as well.' 'I still really feel I need to break free of the media-imposed image,' she told Lauer. 'I'm not just a cuckolded wife.'

"Her sad-sack ex, currently busy haunting Chapel Hill bars, continues to escape any real blame. . . .

"Edwards may be the most press-friendly press-hating jilted political spouse in history--a significant achievement in a crowded field. She is unmatched in both the relentlessness and vehemence of her image-rehabilitation campaign. Next to her, Jenny Sanford, author of Staying True, and Dina Matos McGreevey, author of Silent Partner, look like wallflowers. Not even Hillary Clinton can compete, and she almost became president in her own resilient schlep back from the low point of the Lewinsky years."

Today's Tiger

"Tiger Woods is banned from letting girlfriends near his kids in a divorce deal netting his ex a record $750 million settlement, The Sun reported Wednesday.

"The golfer agreed to keep single women away from daughter Sam, three, and son Charlie, one. He can bring a new flame into their lives only if he marries her. In return, former wife Elin Nordegren ,30, gets the biggest payout ever seen in a celebrity divorce.

"But she can never publicly speak out over his alleged flings with socialite Rachel Uchitel, reality star Jaimee Grubbs, porn queen Joslyn James and up to 17 others."

The London tabloid sure has a lot of detail. But I've been reading that this divorce is imminent since last Christmas and it still hasn't happened.

Today's Blago

The Chicago Sun-Times plays up an incident involving its star columnist, Carol Marin:

"In a tape played late Tuesday, Blagojevich and onetime Deputy Gov. Doug Scofield are chatting -- angrily -- about news coverage.

"Blagojevich had done a live Election Night interview with Marin on WMAQ-Channel 5 the night before. She had asked him whether he had trouble getting up in the morning with the "feds and FBI squads" swarming about him. . . .

"Scofield: 'Of the whole pack, I like her the least.'

"Blagojevich: 'I hate her. I hate her.'

"When that exchange was played in the courtroom, Blagojevich locked eyes with Marin, who was sitting in the media section. The ex-governor gave a big shrug and shook his head apologetically.

"After court adjourned for the day, Blagojevich and Scofield made a beeline for Marin -- to apologize. 'I hope they play the tape where I say I have a crush on you,' Blagojevich told Marin in the lobby downstairs, adding, 'This is proof I didn't know I was being recorded.' "

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

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