Larry King: End of an era

Larry King, CNN's iconic talk show host, hung up his suspenders Thursday after 25 years in the interviewer's chair.

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Michael Harrison
Editor and Publisher, Talkers Magazine
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 2:00 PM

Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, was online Thursday, Dec. 16, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss Larry King, his departure from CNN's regular nine o'clock lineup and the changing landscape of cable TV.

In an e-mail interview with The Washington Post, Harrison said, "Larry King's ratings demise is due more to CNN's undefined and inconsistent position in a changing media landscape than it is indicative of any erosion or weakness specific to the icon's talent, profile or historic stature. His lofty ranking in the history of modern radio and television is secure. He is far better off now taking a less pressured role in broadcasting that taps into his well-deserved status as a talk media and pop culture legend. As far as CNN is concerned, their challenges are far greater than can be rectified by simply replacing Larry King with a younger, hipper host. CNN desperately needs to stop worrying about Fox News Channel and MSNBC and then focus on retooling their identity and service to the news-consuming public.

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Michael Harrison: Hi, Michael Harrison from Talkers magazine here. I will be discussing (and answering questions) about Larry King's CNN program ending and what it means historically as well as to the future of television and radio. Looking forward to getting your questions and comments. Talkers magazine is a trade publication in the talk radio and TV businesses.

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Sarasota, Fla.: How did Larry King make the transition from radio to TV?

Michael Harrison: Larry King is such a unique individual, in terms of his physical and vocal presence, and the eary days of cable news/talk TV were far more basic and simple than what is on today, it was relatively easy for him to just sit in front of the camera and do something very similar to what he had been doing on radio. When he started the CNN show, he was already a well known radio talk show host and there weren't as many then as there are today -- so the public simply accepted it and he was on his way.

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New York City: Is Larry King responsible for CNNs bad ratings? Will Piers Morgan do any better?

Michael Harrison: Great question. I do NOT think Larry King is repsonsible for CNN's ratings problems. CNN has problems that are far more serious than replacing an aging host with a younger, hipper one. With all due respect to Morgan, I do not think he will be the answre to their problem. CNN has what is called in the business an image and positioning problem. They have thus lost their identity - largely due to their preoccupation with Fox News Channel and MSNBC which are far more personality talk show oriented and targeted to specific political mindsets. I suspect the answer to CNN's problem is to super-serve the large segment of the public that craves serious, no-nonsense journalism -- a rare commodity in today's marketplace. In order for CNN to survive and even thrive they must provide the best television journalism in the world - plain and simple. Not show biz, celebrity, jazzy stuff. Forget about Fox and MSNBC. You can't be both and also be in the middle.

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Mesa, Ariz.: Larry's formula didn't change much over the years. Did the show just lose it's lustre for no reason other than the changes in our media appetites?

Michael Harrison: The show really hasn't lost its luster... as I mentioned earlier it is just in the wrong setting. What Larry King does on CNN might work as a weekly or monthly "special" or on a daily basis but not during prime time as a competion to the programs on Fox and MSNBC. Unfortunately for CNN they have allowed themselves to be lumped into the same category as Fox and MSNBC and now do not have the weapons to effectively compete in that genre while remaining a journalistically credible organization. They seem not see the big picture.

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Glenside, Pa.: Not a knock on the guy, but he was much more "exotic" when he was only on overnight radio, almost an outlaw kind of show.

Michael Harrison: He WAS exotic back in those days! And he was the opening wave of what became the invasion of the AM dial by talk radio. We must remember that when Larry King was syndicated all across America doing an all night talk show, most of the stations carrying him were music stations! He led the way for most of those stations eventually becoming talk outlets. Pioneers are always exotic and he was a true talk radio pioneer. Then when the years go by, the exotic pioneer (in anything) seems quaint when compared to all the more modern versions of what they did that follow.

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Dayton, Ohio: Do you think that some of Larry King's personal issues have hurt his image and caused his ratings to drop?

Michael Harrison: No, I think his personal issues have actually kept him interesting to the public. We live in a strange era where a combination of mass A.D.D. and celebrity fascination actually reward bad or scandalous behavior on the part of public figures.

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Sarasota, Fla.: I can understand where a younger, hipper person might make a difference in audience acceptance if he were a singer or a musician or even an actor, but as an interviewer what difference does it make? He interviewed scores of people who fall into the young/hip category over the years.

Michael Harrison: I agree. As I mentioned earlier, the problem is positioning -- not the host.

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Westfield, Ma.: Have you found that the major media sources to be at all biased in their reporting of the news, particularly when it comes to political issues?

Michael Harrison: To a great and sometimes disturbing degree, that is the case. In corporate media, the lines between "entertainment" and "journalism" or "news" have become blurred to the point of being non-existent. Most news organizations today are first and formost concerned about gaining audience and selling advertising. I certainly understand this syndrome and don't blame them for wnating to survive. What I blame them for is their giving up on the idea that there is an intelligent niche out there that would support serious news and journalism and that everything doesn't have to appeal to the lowest common denominator to be successful.

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Mooresville, N.C.: Larry has often stated that he doesn't prepare for interviews, i.e., read author's books, or bios, etc. What do you think of this technique, which simply entails listening to the guest and responding in kind?

Michael Harrison: Although preparation is a good thing and a worthy standard, a case can be made that the layman approach to questions can reveal information that an overly educated intervier might be ashamed to pursue.

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Miami, Fla.: Without taking anything away from Larry King, especially on radio, isn't what he did a follow-on to what the late Barry Gray did, Gray also essentially getting his start in Miami, talking on radio in a hotel lobby?

Michael Harrison: There is no singular "father" of talk radio. It started in different ways in different parts of the country. Everytime we (at Talkers) dig deeper into its history, we always come up with someone, someplace who did talk (as in "talk radio") elements on the air even earlier than those who came later. I do not think Larry King was a pioneer in actually starting talk radio. He was a pioneer inspreading it as a syndicated product across the country. Baryy Gray was earlier and more important a figure in the actual birth of modern talk radio. But even he wasn't first.

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State your question: Larry King, the original Mutual Man, a radio and then TV talk show legend hangs up his suspenders tonight.

It's time to go. He had a great run, and gave comedians plenty to joke about in recent years.

Maybe he could do a Comedy Roast. Wouldn't that be fun.

Michael Harrison: It is the mark of any cultural icon to give comedians something to make fun of. I'm willing to bet Larry King has already been roasted!

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Noordvijk Aan Zee, nl: Do you think that relying on celebrity star power to be new talent will lend itself towards journalistic integrity? Or more importantly -- ratings?

Michael Harrison: I think it is a mistake to rely on celebrity star power to get ratings - celebrities are a dime a dozen in our culture. Especially when you hire "celebrities" to host shows. This is especially true in talk radio. Most of the successful talk show hosts on radio have roots that go back to radio where they paid there dues. The Johnny-come-latelies more often than not fail at this business. Yet the corporations that must justify every move to stockholders and bankers are often afraid to put "unknowns" from lowly radio into important on air radio jobs. Crazy, huh?

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New York, N.Y.: Is there a chance that Larry King will go back to radio? I used to listen to him on the overnights and he was great!

Michael Harrison: There are stories and romors in the radio business that Larry King might return. If he does, he will find that it will be tougher going and more competitive than it was when he left.

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Michael Harrison: Basically, I think that LK holds a place in both radio and television history that is very, very high. He is - to use a widely used expression - a true pop cultural icon. He is a household name. In other words, people who have never actually watch him or heard his shows have heard of him. That is the mark of the highest success in radio and television talk today. CNN should continue to use him -- if for nothing else his image -- to do special reports and interviews. But CNN has got to come to terms with the trues nature of its ratings crisis... and that has nothing to do with Larry King or his replacement. They have to decide EXACTLY what they are and then dedicate themselves to being that. My advice, be what you SAY you are... the first name in NEWS. The market for non partisan, non celebrity-gossip, non sensational, non glitzy NEWS is huge. CNN has the resources to provide this. Just not the will because they do not believe it will work. They might as well set themselves up to compete with the Cartoon Channel or with MMA as what they are doing now.

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Mystic Pizza, Conn.: You wrote, "If he does, he will find that it will be tougher going and more competitive than it was when he left."

I would imagine that he -- like Howard Stern -- would be quite a marketable commodity if suddenly he was exclusively found on a particular radio outlet -- or maybe on his own Web site ...

Do you think that it would be worth it for him to pursue? Or do you think that he should be happy he made it to "retirement" with the amount of success he has achieved?

Michael Harrison: Good question and observation. Exclusivity is the key. In today's multimedia enviornment, almost everything is everywhere. That's what is hurting terrestrial (AM and FM) talk radio. They are giving away their product for free on the internet or competing with their on air signals by having their shows also appear on satellite radio. No doubt, the internet is the future of not just radio and TV -- but almost EVERYTHING. But in the meantime, AM and FM must do everything they can to extend their viability. And that means keepin their best stuff exclusive to their signals (licenses) and having the BEST programming avilable anywhere. Regarding what makes Lrry King tick or be happy - I haven't a clue. That being said, I wouldn't shed any tears for him.

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Washington, D.C.: How about Charlie Rose as a replacement?

Michael Harrison: Charlie Rose would make a good replacement for Larry King on CNN only if the rest of CNN were more like public broadcasting and the BBC than Fox News or MSNBC. This goes back to the positioning thing I talked about earlier. But on the present CNN, Charlie Rose would get even lower ratings than Larry King.

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Anonymous: What -- if anything -- could some of the current day hosts learn from King?

Michael Harrison: They can learn not to be afraid to be themselves and not worry about emulating others. hmmm.. I guess that's an oxymoron isn't it?

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Michael Harrison: I am interested in your opinions as well and would be happy to comment on them. One of the exciting things about talk media (radio and TV) is that the audiences are passionate and opinionted about it.

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Fairfax, Va.: When did the ratings plummet for King? Seems very recent. What caused it, people flocking to Fox and MSNBC? I remember -- not so long ago -- when MSNBC was always third.

Michael Harrison: It is relatively recent that the CNN ratings erosion became critical. They became irreversible however when CNN consciously tried to emulate Fox and MSNBC as opposed to distancing themselves from that style of cable news/talk television.

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Michael Harrison: I want to thank everyone who has join in on this forum. My best to you all. Goodbye for now - Michael

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Annapolis, Md.: Do you think the show replacement will be opinionated?

Michael Harrison: I will answer three more questions that came in before I signed off...

Although I can't be certain, I suspect that it WILL be opinionated. The programmers at CNN think that is the way to go. It just might be a different brand of opinion than we are used to because Morgan comes from a different media culture.

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New York, N.Y.: I wonder if he'll end up on satellite radio like everyone else -- or lend his name to a salad dressing... I suppose when you're Larry King, anything can happen.

Michael Harrison: You are absolutely right... anything can happen. I do not know what LK will do other than some specials for CNN which only makes sense... at least under the present regime and strategy.

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Washington, D.C.: What is your prediction about Piers Morgan? Will it/he work? How different can it be? And he's British. Why does an American cable news network need a non-America on a precious timeslot like 9 p.m. nightly?

Michael Harrison: I think Piers Morgan is a smart man and charismatic figure. I hope it works because as the publisher of an industry trade magazine, I like see everyone be successful. But I think Piers is more of an entertainment kind of guy and that could further muddy the positioning waters in which CNN is currently drowning. Regarding his being British -- at this point in time, it is just another "American" accent. I remember when the Beatles first came here, many industry bigwigs and observers said that British rock n roll could never amount to more than a novelty. Some novelty.

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