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Shales on TV Live: Larry King ratings drop

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, April 20, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, April 20 at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Larry King is a terrible interviewer: I watch his show occasionally, but I do it because I'm interested in the GUESTS, not Larry. He doesn't read the guests' books -- his staff makes up questions. If I have a particular interest in a subject being discussed, I've heard him make statements that are just plain wrong. He often talks 'over' his guests and interrupts them. He should have been replaced years ago -- too bad they let Joy Behar have her own show on another channel at the same time. What are Joy's ratings vs. those of Larry King?

Tom Shales: Hello hello, that you for show -- ing up. I am showing up late because of guest what COMPUTER TROUBLES. Computers are machines that are completely incapable of solving the problems they themselves have created. So computers are one step forward and two steps back for the human race. But it's a losing race anyway - Oh, how cynical! Just joshing, fellow Earthlings. And now off we go onto a sea of troubles and by opposing -- well, who knows?!

Oh, Larry a "terrible interviewer"? Granted. But he must have some kind of appeal because he's been doing this since Mastodons ruled the earth (oh darn, there I go with a Larry King Age joke, just what I deplore in others.....

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: In a conversation with a friend of my age (mid-60s) the name "Dennis James" came up. I remembered him from various game shows up to the 70s and 80s, and vaguely from "pre-historic" TV. I looked him up on-line and found, to my shock, he's credited with being not only the first person to host a telethon, but also as doing the first TV commercial (probably on the Dumont Network). I guess that puts him in some kind of hall of fame, although I'm not sure I'd want that to be the lead in my obituary.

Tom Shales: Dennis James was practically unavoidable (not that one would necessarily want to avoid him) in television of the '50s and I think the '60s as well. He was one of those jacks of all trades -- an announcer, basically, who could host a game show or even do the play-by-play of a wrestling match (I think Steve Allen used Dennis as an inspiration when very early in his career he had a job doing wrestling matches on the radio, and making up the names of "holds" on the spot). I have a TV memory that I am willing to bet NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON in our group today will share: Dennis replaced disc jockey Howard Miller as host of "Club 60," a daily, one-hour, talk-show-with-music that aired on the NBC-owned stations of the 1950's and originated in CHICAGO, that wonderful city to the West. Dennis James also did approximately 25,000 commercials......

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Larry interviewed his own kids on live TV: This was maybe 10 years ago when his guest was late. He put his two young children on-camera and interviewed them until the guest finally got there.

Now I know what live TV was like in the 1950s -- lousy, if you don't have comedy writers like Neil Simon on-staff.

Wonderful article today, Tom, about Larry. I would not watch the show with Katie Couric -- can't stand her.

Tom Shales: You "can't stand" K-K-K-Katie? (that's not a reference to the Ku Klux Klax; it's a reference to an old song). I love her so, but if I call her "cute" the feminists will swoop now on me like the winged monkeys in The Wizard of Oz (and perhaps take out all my stuffings and throw them around). If you have ever spent even ten minutes with her in person, you might change your tune, but then her job is to teleport herself, personality intact, into your home and just disarm you to blazes. For all that, I think Diane Sawyer has more authority as an anchor - more "gravitas" though that is an overused word, especially in Washington -- and I feel more comfortable getting news from her. But on CNN, taking over Larry's show, Katie wouldn't have to give news; she could just talk. I take it you are also saying Larry did a lousy job of interviewing his own kids. Are you SURE? Well I guess you know your own opinions (so sometimes I am not sure I know mine)..........

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Good Day I have been a long-time viewer of the Law and Order (original) show. If I happen to catch one of the re-runs on TNT (TBS?), they never show the shows from the very early days; circa 1989-1993. I remember liking the original D.A. played by Michael Moriarty. Is there a reason they never show these early episodes?

Tom Shales: Those episodes for whatever reason may not be part of the current syndication package -- they may have been removed from the backlog of Law and Order episodes on the grounds that they were already played ten or more times each, whatever, and are considered over-exposed. It seems to me that because of the show's long run, there must be many more episodes available for syndication than there are of a regular show. Same thing with THE SIMPSONS though I don't know if any Simpsons episodes have been withheld. I wish I had just given you a better answer but who knows, what I said might even be accurate!

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Arlington, Va.: You mentioned in today's article that CNN and Larry King are in trouble. Has a cable network, the size of CNN, ever gone out of business? Is CNN anywhere near that level of despair?

washingtonpost.com: Tom Shales on TV: Is Larry King's CNN reign nearing its end? (Post, April 20)

Tom Shales: I don't think there's a danger of CNN "going out of business." It has these ancillary networks that help make up a small empire, after all. Then again it is not unimaginable that CNN might go "on the block" - that Time Warner might decide to sell it and that some growing cable concern might snap it up -- like Comcast buying, or taking over, NBC. Or how's this: a commercial network buys CNN and combines CNN's resources with its own news department, then shuffles ALL its news programming to this separate channel. That would mean that the network could go out of the Evening News business, which is kind of a losing game anyway, yet still maintain a strong news presence. hmmm.....

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Rockville, Md.: Televisionmemory?

No, I never watched Chicago television. But did you ever see "Koobs Koop?" It was out of Bakersfield, Calif. He was a Fresno Star, to be sure.

Tom Shales: Sorry that is too far West for me, but maybe some of our memory-minded chatters out there in Internet Land will remember Koop. I mean Koob. This had nothing to do with C. Everett Koop, right? Or C. Everett Koob, for that matter. Or Gary Kooper. Sorry - getting silly..... Did you ever see the mock-miniseries "Fresno" with Carol Burnett? It was an attempt to satirize shows like "Dallas" And "Falcon Crest," but it didn't have quite the Right Stuff for the job. Still there were plenty of funny moments. This must have been a long LONG time ago (but not in the 50s or 60s)....

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Pot, meet kettle?: David Letterman ragging on Larry King? Dave isn't exactly young or pretty himself. And at least Larry's romantic history involves marriage.

Tom Shales: Well, Dave's involves marriage too. He is married now, albeit just barely and reluctantly, and many years ago he was married to some poor woman whose life he has said since he almost ruined. He has said on the record that he treated her badly -- this was at the beginning of his career, and she helped him get started. There, I have once more failed to solve a problem........

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Baltimore, Md.: Larry King age jokes: Joel McHale regularly works this territory on The Soup, also going after Regis Philbin. Last week he said of Larry's impending divorce: "Didn't Larry and his wife agree to stay married until death do us part? What...they couldn't wait a week?"

Tom Shales: Ooh, a zinger. Pretty good one, too. I don't know if Larry King laughs along with such jokesters or if he genuinely hates them. Incidentally, I did try to reach Larry yesterday for a column I wrote -- but he is in seclusion awaiting the outcome of his divorce. As for Regis Philbin, the man is a living legend and should never be ridiculed.

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Interviewers: I still remember David Susskind, Dick Cavett, Jack Paar and a few others who could interview with style all sorts of people. Nobody today holds a candle IMO. Your thoughts on these guys? And who today would you consider top- tier interviewer?

Tom Shales: All the people you mentioned, though they have or had healthy egos, were willing to suppress their own personas (wait, I am not sure one can suppress a persona - let's just SAY that it can be done) in an effort to bring out the guest's persona -- and opinions, and background, and what made them tick. That kind of interviewer has been replaced by the goofball who tries to be funny like David Letterman. This kind of interviewer just uses the interviewee as a prop, a career crutch, and couldn't care less about bringing them out through skillful questioning. I do like Conan O'Brien but he would tell Albert Einstein to shut up if some dumb-ass joke popped into his head during one of Al's windy answers.......

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Young fogey: I'm not a television snob by any means, but one of the reasons it's hard for me to get into network dramas is the constant background music. It's so intrusive. I'm not old, and my hearing is fine, but it drives me completely nuts.

I don't mind music per se, and in some genres it's needed (like animation), but on all those procedurals and other dramas, I find it more distracting than anything else.

Tom Shales: Me too. And I guess I've said this before - though not deaf or even half-deaf, I have taken to turning on the closed captions during dramatic shows just so I can follow the dialogue. I think part of the problem is Stereophonic sound and the fact that it gives engineers leeway on sound mixing. I know - we've had stereo TV for a lonnnnng time but I still think there are problems with it. They can't seem to get a proper balance between "background" music and foreground dialogue.....And Thank You, Young Fogey ! I myself was a fogey by the time I was 18.......

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Cable Networks Failing: It happens all the time. I used to be in the cable business before I saw the light, and the most valuable thing CNN owns is its contractual channel placement on cable lineups.

At worst, they'll just turn CNN's bandwidth into something else, and there will be two actual news networks: Fox and MSNBC, with their editorial positions clearly staked out.

Tom Shales: Yes cable networks go kaput, or they change formats like radio stations, but for a cable network as large and influential as CNN to just vanish would be unusual, I think, and its disappearance would have tremendous ramifications, most of them bad.....

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Old L and O: Actually, I have recently stumbled upon some very old episodes of "Law and Order" in syndication. I don't remember which channel. It was very late at night, probably on a weekend -- I know I saw episodes from Seasons 2 and 3 (which I happen to have on DVD anyway). I was surprised because you're right, you don't see the really old ones very much. (But I didn't make a note of it because, as I said, I have the DVDs.) If you have digital cable, try searching the program guide for all showings of L and O and you should be able to find out who is showing the old ones. (And if you're not a night owl, you may have to set recordings.)

Tom Shales: Thanks! That makes sense -- that the really old episodes have been sold into syndication to LOCAL STATIONS around the country while the "younger" episodes have been sold to the cable networks like TNT -- they can afford to pay more for them, too.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Seeing that today is anniversary of Israel Independence, I recall ABC televising an all-star salute to Israel at 30 with the stable of ABC talent at the time and Streisand, Manilow, etc. Do you remember this and can you what would be the odds to see something like that again today short of fundraiser for disaster?

Tom Shales: I would be delighted to see such a program. This is somewhat related: way back in the '50s, B'Nai B'Rith celebrated what I think was its 50th anniversary, and the show staged to celebrate was truly star-studded and spectacular. It included a visit from the four stars of "I Love Lucy," then of course the most popular program on TV, at least among comedies ("Lucy" did face some serious competition at one point from a high-quality dramatic series called "Medic" on NBC -- doctor shows go back a long long way, to radio of course). President Eisenhower was there and much if not all of the Supreme Court, which was then a very proud and prestigious institution -- (oh don't send letters, I'm just, uhh, trying to stir up trouble).....

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Washington, D.C.: I think you have it all wrong, as Larry King told a recent guest who wanted his job to come back in 8-10 years. You can say with his marriage problems, he wants out but I think the worse that gets, the more he'll stay til his last day on earth. Only problem is once he goes, who'll notice?

Tom Shales: Ouch! Oooh,that was mean. Funny but mean. Poor Larry. Then again - Rich Larry (although a well-placed source told me that tales of Larry having a $154 million net worth are poppycock, that the real figure is about a hundred million less. Still sounds pretty good to me.... I wouldn't kick it out of bed (sorry).......

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Del Ray, Va.: Do you think the Conan shows will be available on the TBS Web site? Sadly I head upstairs at 11 p.m. and don't have cable in the bedroom. I normally watch Daily Show and Colbert Report via the Internet at a later time.

Tom Shales: How about TiVo or your cable system's DVR recorder, if they have such a thing? You'd be a day behind but at least see all the Conans you wanted.... Dear Friends - a personal note. The column that appeared under my byline this morning, and some of these answers today, have been written under the influence of a mind-altering substance; SUGAR. I should never EVER snack on anything sugary while writing or trying in any meaningful way to function. I apologize for a column that may be (I haven't been brave enough to read it yet) ever-so-slightly INCOMPREHENSIBLE.

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Toronto, Ontario: Call me naive, but to protect its brand, shouldn't CNN stay the way it is? The Daily News and Post outsell the Times on New York's newsstands (I think), but you don't see people complaining that the Times should be more like them.

Conservatives and liberals who like their own opinions validated go to their respective networks. That said, CNN made at least three boneheaded moves over the past few years that really hurt, in my opinion.

1) Larry King Live moved away from newsmaker interviews to celebrity/lifestyle pieces; 2) When they had an opportunity to freshen up the schedule this year, they brought in John King. A competent journalist to be sure, but hardly a ratings grabber;

and worst of all...

3) Canceling "Crossfire" years ago. I'm a huge Jon Stewart fan, but CNN shouldn't have taken his criticism so seriously. I think people like a good liberal/conservative debate, and "Crossfire" was the last such show on television. It had become silly and bloated by the end, but it was still better than anything else out there. CNN would be doing itself a favor by bringing it back.

Tom Shales: As for (3), yeah, what WAS the deal with that? Jon Stewart says "boo" and executives rush to cancel a show? Maybe CNN was in negotiation with Stewart for some kind of show at the time and did this to impress him. I remember when Crossfire left the studios and became a live-audience show from George Washington University - that seemed fairly ambitious. Then again, one must concede, it was basically the same argument every day... And the liberals always seemed to get the worst of it. Or maybe give the worst of it, I forget.........

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Further old "L and O" episodes: An earlier poster is right... on Fridays and Saturdays, TNT (I think) shows early season "L and O"'s sometime between 2-6 a.m.. The thing that caught my eye is the way these early episodes 'really' went for a gritty documentary look (shaky camera, odd angles). It actually works, and captured the feel of a (budget-conscious) John Frankenheimer or Sidney Lumet NYC movies

Tom Shales: Plink-Plunk! It IS a good show, and has remained one even if the style and cast have changed radically over the years...............

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Don't Worry, Tommy: We don't expect you to make sense, anyway.

Tom Shales: Oh thank you. Such sweet, supportive fans that I have....

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Middle-aged fogey: The real problem with incidental music these days is that it is badly done. It's easy, and inexpensive, to develop a stock set of music cues and slap them in regardless of length or mood. When producers care about the time and expense of music, it's superb. Michael Giacchino, an Oscar-winning composer, writes the music for "Lost" and you can hear the quality shining through. Look, or listen, for his work, and that of W.G. Snuffy Walden.

Tom Shales: Thank you, middle-aged fogey (why are so many faithful readers putting themselves down today? Walk tall, people! You're members of the cognoscenti!!! Those were good points about TV music. I get the feeling, though, that six or seven ABC shows are all using not just the same composer but the same score - a cutesy- pizzicato thing with plucked plucky strings that I find very irritating. Notice it on "Ugly Betty" and many others. As for Snuffy, he goes back to "thirtysomething" -- maybe further......

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Montana: Thanks for the big laff about the winged monkeys.

Craig Ferguson has really started to grow on me, when I can stay up late enough to watch him. Very clever. Funny without getting too mean as Letterman seems to do increasingly. (I notice Letterman's audience hardly responds to some of his "jokes" these days). And Leno is fine but bland. Does Ferguson have a shot at moving into a better time slot?

Tom Shales: I do not think Ferguson would be much of a candidate for Dave's slot should Dave do the unthinkable and retire; some other comic would likely be "tapped." One good thing about Dave leaving is that he will take that irritating freak Paul Shaffer with him. Ferguson certainly has a constituency but I don't think it's broad enough - OR YOUNG ENOUGH - to keep a network happy at 11:35 p.m., When you consider that even Leno attracts too old audience, Ferguson would be a self-defeating choice.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: "SUGAR" -- does this mean if we want to have a REALLY good hour, and have you destroying every person [you] write about, we slip a couple of sugar cubes into you cup of coffe/tea just before noon?

Tom Shales: Well now let me see - Hey, was that insulting?!? (see, I'm so sugared-down I can't even tell). Honestly, I haven't had THAT much sugar ... but I must stay away from that devil's own stuff. Sugar, begone! Bring on the healthful saccharine and aspartame. Now you say you "want" me to destroy "every person" I write about? But would that really be NICE?

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Broadway: This may not be exactly your topic area, yet when I heard they are renaming the Henry Miller Theatre as the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, I am wondering: what happens to Henry Miller and people who remember him?

Tom Shales: Phfffft! They don't count any more, I guess. That seems to me like a truly cruel cultural trick. You'd think that once someone is truly renowned, and memorialized via a building or a sculpture or a garden along Route 1 to Ronald Reagan National Airport (or an airport, come to think of it!) then it would be hands-off for the rest of time. You know, from here to eternity. But apparently even immortality is mortal, or something. A shame, and maybe even shameful. And Stephen Sondheim can go and get himself some other memorial.

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United Nations drama?: The question about the show honoring the anniversary of Israel's independence reminded me of a lengthy, start-studded drama about the world slipping into chaos/war without the United Nations to save it. It ran in the holiday season in the late 1960s, I think. It struck me that this would be another well-meaning show that would never be aired now because the political climate is so hostile.

Tom Shales: Yeah, George Will would lead a chorus of hoots against anything celebrating the United Nations. it HAS become controversial over time. The greatest celebrity-studded spectacular I remember ever seeing wasn't THAT long ago and didn't celebrate any particular cultural or historical milestone that I recall - I mean, it WAS a milestone: Alexander H. Cohen's "Night of 100 Stars." All the stars did in some cases was take a bow or walk across the stage, but it was like the last hurrah for the celebrities of Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" -- the highlight of highlights being a moment when James Cagney, still alive, popped up through a hole in the Radio City Music Hall floor and, seated regally in a chair, was so moved by the attendant standing ovation that he began to weep. It was one of those never-ever-forget-it moments. I wish this program could be reshown. It aired before every family on the block had a VCR or DVD. Sorry, I didn't mean to go off on such a long reverie.

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Crossfire: I think Crossfire had poor ratings and the Jon Stewart event -- which I loved -- had nothing to do with the show's demise.

Tom Shales: That could well be true. It aired at like 5 p.m., didn't it? Which seems like a strange time for something like that. It was really just an imitation of John McLaughlin's show anyway.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: Do your "Chicago" memories include Don McNeil? He was much more "radio" than TV, although he tried moving his "Breakfast Club" (a fixture for lord knows how long on radio) to TV some time in the 1950s. Any time I was sick, and couldn't go to school, I looked forward to hearing McNeil in the morning and watching Art Linkletter (who must be approaching 100) and his "House Party" on afternoon TV.

Tom Shales: Good Lord, I feel like I just read a letter from myself to myself! Indeed I do remember the Breakfast Club (no relation to the later John Hughes movie of the same name) and the entreaty to "march around the breakfast table" (this was the prehistoric version of "Jogging," I believe). I never was much of a radio fan except for that show. I think I did mention it recently in conjunction with "Kukla, Fran and Ollie" because Fran Allison also appeared on "Breakfast Club" as wacky Aunt Fanny, a kind of perpetually visiting relative from some mythical little burg. I love Fran Allison. I failed to mention that Kukla, Fran and Ollie were among the "early television" stars recently honored with commemoratives from the Post Office. Oh and like you, "any time I was sick, and couldn't go to school" -- and sometimes when I was a borderline case), I got to watch "Art Linkletter's House Party." Poor old Art, a bit of a strange case......

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In Dave's Defense: Hi Tom. Yes, sometimes our TV Buddy David Letterman does use his guests as props for his comedy hits-n-misses. But, so what? If you were interviewing, say, Paris Hilton, wouldn't you do the same?

The best guests for this exhausted format get the format is nothing but the most basic and silly kind of theater (Bruce Willis, Steve Martin... they get it.)

But when some actor rising out of the cookie cutter comes out to pitch his/her shoulda-been-straight-to-DVD movie and talks about taking the kitty to the vet -- well, honestly, who cares? It's the interviewers' job to make these rote interviews entertaining.

The worst is the established actor, with literally a billion dollars, feigning an ordinary lifestyle. You know, they never talk about their real private lives (e.g., "I had to fire the head of staff at my second estate in Milan").

Tom Shales: Good points all. I guess I was forgetting that the guests more than the hosts have declined in quality over the years -- and this business of the dance card being filled with people who have something to promote anything but a sure-fire formula for a fascinating talk show. You're right, using them for props is often the best use to which they can be put. Paris Hilton is a bad example, though. Dave's first encounter with her was HILARIOUS and so incredibly irreverent - then he later had her back and apologized to a sickeningly sycophantic degree. Ugh, it was SO disillusioning to see him grovel. What happened - did some publicist yell at him? Or was it decided that the only way to get Paris to come back as a guest was to slobber out an apology for having had fun with her? Awful.

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Love for Regis: Regis is a good person to compare Larry King to. Although also as old as dirt, he somehow still seems engaged. Most importantly HE DOESN'T TAKE HIMSELF SERIOUSLY.

Tom Shales: You are so right. Regis is a prince - or maybe a king, as his name implies (or a living Saint, as his name also implies??)

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Audio Issues: One solution is to change the audio setting on the TV to mono, or at least not "surround" sound. When I'm watching two characters talking in a restaurant, I don't need to be able to hear the ambient conversations.

Tom Shales: Good point on the audio problem. Of course sometimes the ambient sound effects and musical score are more interesting than the dialogue......

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Bethesda, Md.: Any chance Mystery Science Theater will make a comeback?

Tom Shales: Joel Hodgson, the real brain behind the thing, is putting out MST3K-like DVD's in which he and fellow cut-ups "riff on old movies" as he puts it. It's not called Mystery Science Theater though, I guess someone else owns that title. In fact I don't know what it IS called but I mentioned it in a column many many months ago. Try Googling? Joel Hodgson perhaps? Thanks for the question. Thanks for all the questions. And the patience and tolerance. Please come back again.....

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