CNN, which turns 30-years-old this year, appears to have an identity crisis – and Larry King is at the heart of it. How does the news network regain its place atop the ratings when it doesn’t sell sex or opinion?
In February 1992, billionaire Texan businessman Ross Perot appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live and announced, for the first time, that he would run as an independent in that year’s US presidential race if his supporters could get him on the ballot in all 50 states. Back then, Larry King Live was the most successful news show on American cable TV: the host, born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in 1933, had developed a non-confrontational approach that guests appreciated, and often this would be the only live appearance that a celebrity would make. Perot, who understood the value of Larry King, soon saw his media-savvy pay off. Campaigning on policies that included balancing the federal budget, expanding the war on drugs, ending job outsourcing, and instituting protectionist trade measures – none of which King challenged – Perot was by June tracking ahead of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the polls.
Watch: Ross Perot on Larry King Live, 20 February 1992
This week marks King’s 25th year on CNN, and what he no doubt wanted to be a triumphant anniversary is instead a sombre moment to reflect on how far he’s fallen. Incredibly, his audience has halved since the 2008 presidential election, and the biggest interviews on TV are now going to his competitors. In mid-May the 9pm interview with senate candidate Rand Paul, which not so long ago would have been a shoe-in for King, went to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, a host with a much tougher style.
The problem is not King’s alone. As the New York Times made abundantly clear last week, CNN is equally to blame. “Although still the linchpin of CNN’s lineup, [King] has come to embody an enormous problem facing the cable news channel. How can he and CNN compete in prime time when viewers seem to crave partisan political programs and when prominent guests — the lifeblood of Mr. King’s show — would rather burnish their images on other channels?”
A core issue, it seems, is CNN’s identity crisis. In 2008, when the channel was getting hammered by Fox News in the ratings on election coverage, they hired Campbell Brown away from NBC to try to staunch the bleeding. But CNN, being who they are, declined to do what Fox News would have done without blinking – which is, show Ms Brown’s legs.
Photo: Larry King and his wife Shawn arrive at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in 2006. The couple have announced they would divorce in April, but moved back together in May 2010. REUTERS/Phil McCarte
In May, Brown quit her CNN show because of plummeting ratings. Prominent blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle, Zennie62, put it like this: “Is it sad that Campbell Brown’s legs may have saved her show? Yeah, it is. But the bottom line in television is viewers, time, and money. The key to success is to make people stop and watch for whatever reason. High-minded views on news and society are fine if they work; in [CNN’s] case they don’t.”
Which means, while it’s all well and good to praise CNN for their taste and refinement, they haven’t been doing themselves any favours. As indicated, almost as marked as their reticence to sell sex (however diluted) has been their reticence to sell opinion. Like MSNBC’s Maddows, Sean Hannity of Fox hasn’t built a name for himself by being fair-minded or balanced – both Maddow and Hannity are in-your-face opinionistas, and they’re both now well ahead of King in audience ratings for the prime time news talk slot.
Watch: 60 minutes segment on Larry King from 1992
Could the Internet and other competing mediums be to blame – even slightly – for CNN’s woes? Not entirely. “Some at CNN argue that Mr. King and his program are casualties of the fragmented nature of TV,” New York Times reporter Brian Stelter wrote. “But Mr. Hannity’s program is down only 2 percent in the 25- to 54-year-old ratings demographic, and Ms. Maddow’s program has declined by about 28 percent, a narrower loss than Mr. King’s 43 percent slide. A new talk show on CNN’s sister network HLN, hosted by Joy Behar, also sometimes beats Mr. King’s show.”
Looking solely at King, a more pertinent observation would be the one about his age. He turns 77 in November, and his core fan-base is not being supplemented by members of the younger generation. While it appears that CNN doesn’t have a succession plan in place, they are no longer inviting King to meet the major advertisers, preferring to impress with prettier faces like Anderson Cooper and Soledad O’Brien.
Steven Farella, chief executive of New York advertising agency TargetCast TCM, summed it up nicely for the Times: “Larry King has a terrific place in cable news history, but maybe not a firm place in cable news today.”
By Kevin Bloom
Main photo: Larry King attends a party to celebrate his 20 years with CNN in Beverly Hills on October 6, 2005. Reuters
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.