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Shales on TV Live: Larry King exits CNN, more

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, July 6, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, July 6, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today's column: Tom Shales: Larry King's exit marks the end of a gentlemanly era in TV talk

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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washingtonpost.com: Tom is being delayed due to tech problems. Please stay with us.

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St Paul, Minn.: Hi Tom -- Thanks for taking questions today and for the article on Larry King. I was never a big LK fan or watcher, and I always thought of his show as a place for politicians and show business people to hawk their books and causes rather than as a serious venue for talking about the issues of the day. Is there still a place -- or rather a need -- for the former as well as the latter, regardless of who they get to replace him? I say no, but I'd love to know your thoughts.

Tom Shales: So sorry I am late -- the wonderful Mac strikes again. What an absolute useless utterly stupid piece of garbage. More on that later. St. Paul, Minn., asks if Larry King is to be taken seriously (more or less). I think he can certainly be taken as seriously as -- or more seriously than -- most of the other impressarios of talk holding forth on radio and TV. Larry's oldfashioned -- he lets the guest say what he wants to say, then hones in with questions. There are many stories of Larry's negligence -- I saw him interview a child Nazi once and for the first ten minutes, Larry didn't seem to know he WAS a Nazi; he just thought he was naughty, I guess. Larry can be shockingly unprepared. But he still offers a receptive forum without a lot of hassling for people who want to be heard, including viewers........

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New York, N.Y.: Hi Tom:

CNN used to represent the gold standard in television news.

With the new Eliot Spitzer show, and the departure of Larry King, the CNN that we know and love is gone.

It's hard to believe that none of the major cable networks have what can be considered a traditional newscast during the 8:00 PM or 9:00 p.m. hours.

In this era of Facebook and Twitter, and when I can get video from cnn.com on my iPhone or BlackBerry, is cable news now dead?

For me, the only time that MSNBC, Fox or CNN are interesting is when there is breaking news or a major event like election night or a presidential speech.

Your thoughts?

Tom Shales: I cable NEWS now dead? Apparently -- if we mean sheer pure real uncommentated news. News without opinion. That's the sad thing; there really is not New York Times of the Cablewaves. Or Wall St Journal. Or Washington Post. Nobody to give the news straight -- TRULY balanced, not just claiming so in a slogan. And again -- apologies for being late, the responsibility lying with my miserable rotten Mac computer. Talk about your bad Apples........

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Downfall: I know you're a "big fan" of Wipeout (and how can you not be, really) but Downfall, which follows, is destined to be canceled. My children like watching stuff fall off the building but the show has little to offer otherwise.

Tom Shales: Thanks for the non-Larry King question, tho we'll get back to good ol' Larry in a moment. If you want to see things fall off buildings, watch David Letterman. More often than he should -- probably -- Dave has stagehands or guests go up to the top of the office building attached to the Ed Sullivan Theater and drop junk down on 53rd Street just to watch it sploosh. So far, he has NOT dropped ANY human beings.....

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Arlington, Va.: CNN is also picking up Eliot Spitzer because, as some wag said, "Bernie Madoff wasn't available." Actually, I would imagine that Spitzer would be an extremely intelligent analyst if the network would let him be. Kathleen Parker has shown herself to be both opinionated and civil. I guess nobody will watch them.

Tom Shales: But hasn't Elliot Spitzer SORT OF disqualified himself by being a disgrace as a "public servant," a man crusading against hookers while at the same time partaking of their, uh, commerce? I mean, America IS the land of the second-chance, the reformed, the Born-Again and the forgive-and-forget, but how quickly should the forgiving and forgetting go? And now a word from Apple computers -- Crap. That's the word, that's the computer.........

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Rockville, Md.: As a Brit with a lot more global knowledge about global affairs, do you think Piers Morgan would be a lot more even-handed on the middle east issues as opposed to Larry King's hawkish pro Israel views?

Tom Shales: Well there we have a problem right-off as I do not find Larry King's views on the Mideast to be "hawkish" in any direction. Let's just not get into it, because the REALLY hostile commentors will start checking in and the risk of anti-Semitic drivel is pretty high. I think Larry is pretty even-handed without being just a talking mannequin up there. Larry's criticized for being too bland usually, not too opinionated, so to say he is a hawk on this one subject seems unfair.....

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Alexandria, Va.: Hey Tom, if you had any doubt about the lack of civility in society, just check out the comments to your article this morning! Do you find it sad that neither side of any issue can have any kind of civil discussion? It doesn't matter if you are left or right, the other guy is evil incarnate. So King will be missed, just because he never demonized anyone.

Tom Shales: Yes, I must admit, I was a wee bit - uh -- "disturbed"? Yeah, I'm fat. I don't try to hide it - except for wearing black suits, which by the way doesn't fool anybody. So one hostile writer calls me "fat boy" in the course of trouncing my views on, coincidentally enough, the harshness of pubic debate these days. What has me being fat got to do with the arguments at hand? Maybe the guy writing in has a wart on his fanny. I don't think it would be precisely copacetic to bring that up, to dismiss the views of a Fanny-Warter.......

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South Bend, Ind.: I'll give David Letterman his credit when it comes to political interviews.

I've seen him interview John McCain, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, etc... and thought they all far more engaging and interesting on the Late Show then any of them ever were on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

Yes, it's late night TV talk show, so I'm not expecting that much, but I think David Letterman actually showed some skill in interviewing people when he has big time politicians on his show.

Tom Shales: I COULD NOT AGREE MORE... David more than once -- many more times than once -- has risen to the occasion and managed to ask the kind of questions any of us might ask, but to do so in perhaps a more articulate and informed way than just the "average" person-on-the-street. And when he came back on the air after the 9/11 attacks, he expressed outrage with appropriate passion and horror but also with what seemed a genuine understanding of the insanity that brought that nightmare to fruition. He spoke to us but also for us in a way. He is a truly enigmatic guy, full of surprises, and his grasp of the "current events" is impressive. Yes he hated George W Bush - but he did some of the best Bush jokes anybody ever told........

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Everett, Wash.: Your computer ticks me off, too.

Tom Shales: Thank you, Everett! Do you mean you have the misfortune to own a Mac, or that you are annoyed with the late sign-on and with me always complaining about my lousy computer?

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Have you ever seen Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's program "The Hour" with George Stroumboulopoulos (yes!) who is an extrordinary, award winning interviewer. I'm sure the U.S. networks have gone after him. Well, he just blew away Larry King when he was a guest on his CBC program. Larry could not believe how well he handles an interview. I watch because he is able to have guests that refuse to be on any U.S. talk shows but appreciate his intelligence and humor. I often wish we emulated our neighbors up north!

Tom Shales: Good point -- but couldn't the guy shorten his name just enough to make it manageable?! That last name makes "Stephanopoulos" look like Smith or Jones. Not That There's Anything Wrong with That -- except how are you going to tell somebody, "You ought to catch the Whosits Whatchamacallit Show." By the way, BBC America offers a very no-nonsense (if perhaps just a little TOOO dry) newscast, with a global scope, every night on the BBC America channel (logically enough)........

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Spitzer: Spitzer may be entitled to a second chance and all of that (it would be nice if he went to jail first considering we all would have) but he's not entitled to a news show on what is supposed to be a major show at a major time. His new show sounds like something the NY Post would put on. His whole claim to fame is being a smart crusading DA. He's obviously not that smart and he broke the law more than a few times.

Tom Shales: Yes. Letting bygones be bygones is a nice philosophy but it's gotta have limits. If Manson ever got out of jail, would CNN, Fox, MSNBC and who knows who-else be lined up outside the prison, waving contracts for him to sign? After all, that crook who was thrown out as governor of Illinois seems to be making a go at a second career, "TV Personality," someone who can essentially do nothing and has a complete absence of talent to facilitate that, paid handsomely because he spent a few weeks on the gossippy tabloid shows and the front page of the N Y Post.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, bless your Apple-addled soul, but you might the only person left in America who actually thinks that the NYT, the WaPo and the WSJ don't have any "bias" (yes, I'm talking about their reporting, not their op-ed pages). Bias is like an accent -- EVERYONE has one, even when you think you don't. At least MSNBC and FNC admit to having a bias, CNN is just blissfully ignoring its own.

Tom Shales: Oh come on, I didn't say NO bias, absolute pristine objectivity, pure and holy decency and sinlessness. Nobody can achieve that so nobody should bother trying. But at the newspaper I've worked for lo these several decades, I have watched people strive with all their might to be as fair as they could be. Sometimes failing, but almost always trying. Except for critics, of course. It seems the meaner we are, the more readers enjoy it.

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Burbank, Calif.: Hey Tom, huge fan!

So let me guess, we will now be subjected to a barrage of "Larry's last interview with Liza" or "Only 15 more days until the final show" or "Yet another clip show of Larry's greatest moments"..? I am at a loss (I'm really not -- $$$)as to why everything always has to be an overblwn big deal. Wouldn't it be great if he just left quietly and without fanfare?

Tom Shales: Quietly and without fanfare - I think that would be refreshing. None of that soppy "End of an Era" stuff -- and besides, it hardly behooves CNN to REMIND us all that an era is ending, especially if it's the era of civility and fair play. I don't know what the plans are - I heard something about "Larry's Farewell Tour," which was supposed to last a year (!) -- talk about your Long Goodbyes -- but the wiser course of action would be the one you suggest, with a little dignity PUH-LEEZE. By the way, angry commenters this morning suggested that i be fired, that Larry King be fired, that Jon Klein of CNN be fired - basically that everybody be fired. I love the way people will wish complete failure and impoverishment on people BECAUSE THEY DON't AGREE WITH THEM. I know, it's not to be taken very seriously, but I think it's frightening the way people toss those curses around.

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Carlsbad, N.M.: Do you really think having sex with a stranger for money is on par with what Charles Manson did?

If Hugh Grant, Rob Lowe and god only knows how many more men (and betting even some woman in the public eye) can have successful careers, why not Eliot Spitzer? Even that David Vitter is looking like he'll get reelected.

I don't Eliot Spitzer on TV because I don't think he's very good in front of a camera regardless of the state of his marriage.

Tom Shales: Okay I did NOT say or imply that paying for sex is tantamount to mass murder. Let's leave it at that, I am too tired to wrestle around about it.

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Washington, D.C.: I remember the Larry King of radio from years ago who used to argue with callers and interrupt them with admonishments like "you're making a speech." Larry fought off challenges from the likes of Long John Nebel and others in the early years.

Of course, then he had a heart attack and had to become a softball interviewer. That had its advantages though because the people who eventually appeared on Larry King had their own messages they wanted to get out. Larry was enough of a journalist though that he would eventually get to the blancing questions too. Mauling or badgering guests in the opening segment, like Ted Koppel did to Michael Dukakis in 1988, just never happened.

Folks think Fox and MSNBC are the future, but those shows can't book the guests that Larry could. Besides, those hard-scrabbled idealogical shows can't accommodate celebrities and victims like Larry King Live. As Larry could be shockingly unprepared, is it fair to conclude that the format is dead?

Tom Shales: The format dead? I think that's going too far. Who knows but that somebody will come along and re-invent it. I was on Larry's radio show a few times when it originated from Crystal City (is that what it's called?) in Alexandria, and the air time was like midnight to four a.m. or something equally taxing. And Larry had found a way to deal with the ungodly hours: Cat naps. Cat naps WHILE THE GUEST WAS TALKING (!). More than once I'd be babbling on about some pet point I thought I was making, and I'd look over to see Larry's head in full nod and his eyes closed. I was scared stiff, believe me - 'cause I thought I would have to take over and host the show! But Larry always popped back to life when the guest's pontifications were over. A little cuckoo clock went off in his head.

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Athens, Ga.: I concur on David Letterman.

He finds a good balance of not going for "gotcha moments" and letting the politicians be funny and insightful while also not letting them off the hook with gib answers or talking points.

Plus he understands there is a huge difference interviewing some 20-year-old guy with nice abs who is playing a vampire in high school and interviewing the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Tom Shales: There's a huge difference? Oh. No, you're right, of course. And David continues to be full of surprises -- sometimes so insufferably silly that it's almost unbearable, then other times showing a remarkable sober side and a genuine grasp of trends and events.

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New York: 'It seems the meaner we are, the more readers enjoy it.'

And the same holds true, unfortunately, for cable news talk hosts, which is why Larry's numbers are down. The fault lies in ourselves.

Tom Shales: Precisely the point I tried to make in my column this morning. Perhaps you'd like to take me out to lunch the next time I am in New York?

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Middleburg, Va.: Tom,

With all of the contentious, divisive, polarizing scream-fests on cable today you so well ranted about, are MORE people today watching this junk vs. 5 years go or LESS? Is this tactic actually working and cable networks are getting better ratings, or is this noise starting to detract viewership and, please say it's so, viewership has plateaued or is now trending downward??

Tom Shales: We are actually talking about a small audience compared to those watching "Dancing with the Stars" or whatever on ABC, CBS or NBC. Remember that on a good night, Larry King delivers a million viewers. ONE million, vs the 15 or 20 million who tune in a hit network sitcom or drama. But it's a realm with its own rules, winners, losers and national impact. By the way, back in the early 50s, when there were far fewer TV sets in American homes than there are today, some 80 million people watched the episode of "I Love Lucy" in which Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky. The thing is, there were only 3 networks, far far fewer choices available. And no computers, such as the lousy Mac........

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Arlington, Va.: LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE your chatters, especially the one who contrary to your advice suggested I get Netflix instead of upgrading my cable subscription. Live has been GOOOOOOOOOOD in this heat -- catching up till 2 a.m. on all those movies and TBV shows I've missed over the years. My question - which HBO and Starz shows I should start with Avatar? Bones? Lie to Me? as these are streamed instantly. Thanks for taking my question and good luck with your Mac, fellow Luddite, I feel your pain.

Tom Shales: I wouldn't know where to begin on your HBO-Starz quandary. What did you get Starz for anyway? It's fine if you want EVERYTHING, I guess. I don't understand this question: "Which HBO and Starz shows should I start with Avatar?" Huh? IF you really havent seen "Avatar," that should be first on your list, just to keep you vaguely au courant. Don't forget Turner Classic Movies. It is the best reason to have cable or satellite or FIOS. Sometimes I think it's the best reason to have a big-screen TV set, too, although the World Cup championships aren't a bad reason, either. If you watch them, though, be sure to supplement your South African viewing with "District 9," the Oscar-nominated allegory about how south Africans deal with a "new" minority. Brilliant.

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the only person left in America who actually thinks that the NYT, the WaPo and the WSJ don't have any "bias" (yes, I'm talking about their reporting, not their op-ed pages). Bias is like an accent -- EVERYONE has one, even when you think you don't. At least MSNBC and FNC admit to having a bias, CNN : Impossible to disucss network bias and NOT mention FOX, the king of 'em all in BIAS.

Tom Shales: Yes, there is a less-than-delicate irony in Fox using a slogan about fairness and balance and absence of "spin" and so on. Personally, though, I enjoy Fox for its bluntness, its razzle-dazzle, its production values. Leaving content aside, Fox and its snazzy graphics and such makes CNN look like Aunt Minnie's News Network, quaint as a doily.

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More on Letterman: I used to be a huge Letterman fan because he's so obviously intelligent, has a great sense of irony, and does very good interviews. But his "meanness factor" got bigger every year until I couldn't watch him any more. Honestly, I thought he became like the people he used to mock back when he was the new guy in town: pompous, overbearing and self-important. I'd like the old Dave back.

Tom Shales: Oooooh. You really think so? Maybe HIS heart attack changed him, the way someone say Larry King's changed him. They say open-heart surgery leaves no patient who undergoes it the same as when he or she entered the hospital. Maybe it's because in your daze and induced nap you come as close as possible to death without crossing the line. Now is that profound or what? Sorry, no time for you to answer, we're running late. Actually we can stay on past one o'clock today because of the unseemly delays caused by the horrible Apple computer in cahoots with AOL, that unyielding impediment to human communication......

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Larry: Mr. King was nice but his interviewing skills plummeted and he was hard to watch. He stopped following up, he'd read a question, the guest would answer it and Larry would move on to something else and we'd learn nothing. It's not an issue of nice, he was barey having a conversation.

Tom Shales: Some truth in what you say. He remained nice through it all, though. Normally I wouldn't find "nice" all that much of a virtue in an occupation like talk-show hosts, but there has to be room for at least one civil, non-hostile radio talker.

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Spitzer 2: Just to help you a wee bit, Hugh Grant is an actor, we don't care what he does with his money. Spitzer is going to CNN, in primetime, to give his views and interview people based on his expertise in law enforcement. He has no credibility on this show because he violated the laws he swore to uphold WHILE IN OFFICE. I feel bad for Ms. Parker frankly.

Tom Shales: Well put. Thanks. Help always welcomed = warmly (as if there were any other way on a day like this)

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College Park, Md.: Isn't Bill Moyers looking for a gig? I think he could fill Larry King's shoes rather well. You?

Tom Shales: Uhhh - thanks, College Park, but you're being a trifle unrealistic. Bill Moyers is one of the best TV "thinkers" ever, and earnest to the nth degree about digging up useful truths. But there's a school of thought with many, many members who think Moyers is too much the old-school liberal and inherently divisive. Then again it's not the job of a TV talker to unite us in blissful harmony. I just don't think Moyers would even be interested in such a gig. And even if he were, he'd be ruled out by the powers that be because powers-that-be find him too mch of a threat;.......

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Evanston, Ill.: I'm sure the exact same column was written when Hedda Hopper retired.

Time stand stills for no man isn't just a pretty thought. At some point, you are going to see a bit of sixty-somethings on TV (or whatever is the big new waves of mass media) talking nostalgically about Britney Spears.

It happens.

Tom Shales: Oh you're being silly. Hedda Hopper was a frivolous old Hollywood gossip columnist. No one took her very seriously as a Journalist; she was many a notch below, say, Helen Thomas. Hedda was a gadfly, not a reporter.

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, you and the last poster both do know that FNC is the acronym for Fox New Channel, right?

Tom Shales: Fox NewS Channel, right. Why don't they just call it FNC in promos and such? Well however logical that might be, they don't do it. Don't they usually say "Fox News," which is also the name of the news-gathering operation that feeds news and/or newscasts to Fox stations?

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Arlington, Va.: To clarify question, I did not get Starz or HBO, I can now watch their shows on Netflix, I usually agree with your verdict on the quality of the show

Tom Shales: Oh, thanks. Too hard though to think of 4 or 5 current movies that you might want to order on Netflix right off ... or were you thinking about On-Demand TV shows? Or less-recent films?

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Alexandria, Va.: First it was all AOL's fault, now it is Apple's. We love ya, Tom, but perhaps you need a geek to visit and check out your home computer set-up. Sounds like something might be installed incorrectly.

Post a request for volunteers if need be. I know that after those brilliant Kathie Lee Christmas special reviews, I feel like I owe you something.

Tom Shales: Thanks, very kind of you. Actually, though, I was following a procedure for signing on to the Post's Chat Site that was EXACTLY the same as the one used last week, only this week the computer found the link completely wrong and impossible to process and so on. Oh how I hate these wretched things. Thank you for putting up with my tantrums and for the great questions. I wish there were more time. Please come back a week from today. I am taking steps to guarantee that my breath will be KISSING FRESH!!!! You wouldn't want to miss THAT, would you? ...... thanks and good-bye.........

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