BY: FRAZIER MOORE
NEW YORK – Early last June, CNN celebrated 25 years of “Larry King Live” with a week of shows whose A-list guests included President Barack Obama, LeBron James, Bill Gates and Lady Gaga.
It was hyped to the hilt and suitably eventful, even as King and Lady Gaga regarded each other with the bemusement of a human encountering an alien life form.
Then, at the end of June, King suddenly announced he was retiring from his show — a weeknight fixture at 9 p.m. Eastern since June 1, 1985. He told viewers, “It’s time to hang up my nightly suspenders.”
After Thursday’s edition, King will indeed hang it up, suspenders and all.
The lineup for this farewell hour should be stellar, though no names have been announced. The mood should be spirited and flowing with emotion.
But until now, it’s been an oddly subdued leave-taking. The promotion machine at a network can make noise over most anything. Or try. CNN isn’t bothering. Having paid King his tribute last June, before he even said he would be stepping down, CNN now is treating him as a lame-duck star, a chapter the network is rushing to move past.
The focus is on Piers Morgan, whom CNN named as the new guy in September. It is busily promoting his January debut. Morgan, a 45-year-old British journalist and TV personality known mainly in the U.S. as a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” promises that “Piers Morgan Tonight” will be “exciting and slightly dangerous.” He is the future — or so CNN hopes.
King, who has never been exciting or dangerous (nor tried to be), is clearly seen by CNN as yesterday’s news.
Sure, it would be easy to argue that the 77-year-old King waited too long to hang up those suspenders.
Once the leader in cable TV news, he now ranks third in his time slot behind Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. His show was seen by 700,000 viewers this year, less than half the nightly audience his peak year, 1998, when “Larry King Live” drew 1.64 million viewers. As recently as 2003, he was averaging 1.54 million.
Wide-eyed and nonconfrontational, King’s regular-guy approach to interviewing feels dated in an era of edgy, pushy or loaded questioning by other hosts.
“I ask short questions, I have no pretense at intellectuality, I don’t pretend to know it all,” King said years ago in explaining his style. “Not, `What about Geneva or Cuba?’ I ask, `Mr. President, what don’t you like about this job?’ Or `What’s the biggest mistake you made?’ That’s fascinating.”
Fascinating, until it seems sluggish or toothless or like automatic pilot.
It has become easy for the viewer to lose patience with King’s accommodating, hunched-at-his-desk Q-and-A’s with his guests.
As recently as last week, he landed Wesley Snipes for an interview just days before the actor began serving a three-year prison sentence for failure to file income tax returns. But the ponderous interlude served mostly as a platform for Snipes to complain about his mistreatment at the hands of the media and the judicial system. King was ill-equipped to cut to the heart of the matter: How Snipes could have gotten himself into such a jam.
King’s famous avoidance of over-preparation — he has always opted to approach each interviewee fresh, unburdened by too many facts — has begun to catch up with him in recent years. His occasional flubs have made him seem out of touch. Or worse. (A prime example from three years ago found King asking Jerry Seinfeld if he had voluntarily left his sitcom or been canceled by his network, which, as everybody else knows, had been ready to hand him the keys to the treasury to stay. “I was the No. 1 show in television, Larry,” replied Seinfeld with a flabbergasted look. “Do you know who I am?”)
At its start, “Larry King Live” was based in Washington, which gave the show an air of gravitas. King, too. He was the plainspoken go-between through whom Beltway bigwigs could reach their public, and they did, earning the show the reputation of a place where things happened, where news was made.
Then in 1997 he moved to Los Angeles, which seemed a nod to show biz over substance — not to mention a more convenient routine for King. A man who once had hosted a nationwide radio program in the wee hours of the night, now he was done with “Larry King Live” at 7 p.m. local time.
After Thursday’s show, he’s flat-out calling it a day. The points of light that form his dotted world-map backdrop will be dark.
The end of “Larry King Live” is undeniably a cultural milestone, the end of a remarkable run. King, the suspenders-sporting everyman, is a pioneer in cable and a TV institution.
He has estimated that he’s conducted 50,000 interviews during his half-century-long broadcasting career. Maybe so. And maybe he should have stopped a couple thousand earlier. But that doesn’t mean King (and his nightly suspenders and the safe space he created for his thousands of guests) won’t be missed after Thursday, when he’s gone.
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