News & Opinion

Larry King

TV says goodbye to the most famous pair of braces in showbiz

The Times

December 17, 2010


It may have marked the end of an era but the mood was not mournful or reverential as Larry King prepared to host the final edition of his CNN talk show last night after 25 years.

The 77-year-old’s interviewees have included presidents, pop stars and film legends, but the harsh truth was that his show was losing ratings and was no longer a must-see. A-list celebrities and public figures prefer to bare their souls to Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters rather than King, who was frequently accused of not asking tough questions of guests.

The dwindling audiences led CNN, trailing behind Fox News and MSNBC in prime time, to replace King with Piers Morgan, whose show begins next month. While viewers and critics regard King with gentle affection, particularly his trademark braces, the circumstances of his departure from CNN are strained. At the end of an interview with Vladimir Putin this month the Russian Prime Minister commented: “I don’t know why the King leaves the US stage.” King replied: “I sometimes don’t know why myself.”

King said this week: “It’s sad, but there’s a time to go. You know when it’s time.” The interviewer, who has been married eight times, said he knew that “the writing was on the wall” when CNN offered him a one-year contract extension rather than the customary three to five years. He is reported to have agreed not to defect to rivals if he could do four special shows a year. “I have no complaints against CNN,” he said. “It’s been a hell of a marriage. This is not a divorce.”

It is certainly an emphatic separation. In the first quarter of 2010 the audience of Larry King Live dropped 43 per cent to 771,000. Across its prime-time schedule CNN’s ratings were down 39 per cent among total viewers, and 42 per cent among those aged 25 to 54 — the demographic most coveted by advertisers.

CNN’s problem, say critics, is one of style: viewers have gravitated to the right-of-centre politics of Fox News, with personalities such as Sean Hannity, or the leftish MSNBC and hosts such as Rachel Maddow, while CNN’s identity remains unfixed.

The talk yesterday was not of his broadcasting legacy but who would be on his final show. Guests in his final week have included Barbra Streisand and Tony Blair. Rumour suggested that the last show would include 16 par- ticipants. The only confirmed guests last night were Ryan Seacrest, the host of American Idol, and Bill Maher, the host of HBO’s Real Time.

Seacrest was thought to be King’s choice of successor. CNN remained poker-faced. Its website read: “We’ve got a bunch of surprises for him — and you. Don’t miss it!”

King’s guests have ranged from Marlon Brando (he famously kissed King at the end of their interview) to Lady Gaga, Yassir Arafat and Mike Tyson. A tribute video of “best moments” shows Elizabeth Taylor clasping King’s hand, Johnny Cash insisting that he is “thrilled to be alive” and Mr Putin and President Ahmadinejad of Iran refusing to answer questions. Many celebrities paid tribute to King in July at the start of the final season, including Donald Trump, Celine Dion and Al Pacino, who said: “You still have the same energy, the same commitment, the same interest in other people and what they think and how they are feeling and what they got to say, and I think that is pretty amazing.”

In an interview this week King decried trends in modern talk shows: “On many of these shows the guest is a prop for the host and that’s not my kind of broadcasting,” he said. “I hope it’s cyclical. I hope it comes back to information rather than yelling, and the guests are given a chance to finish a thought.” King rejected the accusation that he was a soft interviewer: “I’m a minimalist, and the greatest minimalist question of all is, ‘Why?’ I never bought that softball rap.”

He said that Frank Sinatra had been his favourite interviewee. The best interviewees, he said, had — like Sinatra — passion, a sense of humour and a chip on their shoulder. Robert Mitchum, who was monosyllabic in his responses, was his worst.

Morgan’s show next month is being sold as “exciting and slightly dangerous”. The former Editor of the Daily Mirror is seen as as a dedicated hunter of tabloid scoops.