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Farewell, Larry King!


Announcing his retirement via twitter by saying he was going to “hang up his suspenders” this fall, the end of an era is finally at hand. Though it wasn’t pretty at the end as over 40% of his audience pretty much disappeared (actually, they died), he leaves a considerable legacy and a tremendous body of work.

I blogged a piece back in April entitled “Who exactly is watching Larry King?” in which using government morbidity statistics, I found the following uncanny correlation:

Could it be – and I swear to you I am not exaggerating here- that his audience is dying? Literally keeling over? I mean 2.4 million Americans die every year. In his key 65-74 demographic, about 400,000 people can be expected to lose their lives on an annual basis. Since last year, King has lost about 570,000 viewers.

But all that doesn’t really have as much to do with Larry himself as it does with the folks at CNN who stubbornly refused to put his show to rest. I suppose it would be hard to blame them considering Larry held that cable network up for decades, raking in hundreds of millions in revenues.

The “debate” he moderated via his show between Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot in January of 1993 remains the single most watched program in cable history. The list of celebs, politicians, luminaries and victims of scandal who have graced his set reads like a who’s who list of the 20th century.

Larry, the TV guy

My own connection with Larry dates back to the mid 1990’s when I came to CNN to run their radio network. Westwood One’s radio simulcast of Larry’s TV show hit my revenue line and the graph of his radio revenues was an upside down hockey stick; not good. Working with my buddies at Westwood we tried and tried in vain to get Larry to remember that his contract still included this radio simulcast and that maybe he could cut down on the visual references.

The big highlight in that regard was the night during the OJ Simpson murder trial when Larry had a polygraph expert on to determine the veracity of the testimony of Detective Mark Fuhrman. It was an entire hour of looking at spikes and valleys on polygraph charts featuring such scintillating phrases as, “Wow, look at the spike there, you think that means he was lying?” This made for tremendously underwhelming radio, to say the least. The Westwood folks did their best to replace those shows with more radio-friendly evergreens but it was ultimately a losing battle. It was almost as if Larry was purposely leaving the radio part of his life behind with every “watch this clip,” he uttered on his TV show.

I remember this very issue escalated into a knock-down-drag-out between me and Wendy Walker Whitworth, Larry’s long-time Executive Producer. The venerable, then Senior CNN Vice President, Gail Evans, intervened to bring peace to the family. The issue was quickly resolved. Larry got his way and I gave up getting him to acknowledge he still had a radio audience.

Larry, the Radio guy

He did great radio. That’s how he got the TV gig, remember? It helps explain the large radio microphone on his desk. Larry’s overnight show on the Mutual Radio network was really good. I’ll always remember the night John Lennon was shot. I was doing morning-drive newscasts then for a local Washington radio station so I always listened to Larry’s radio show on the way in to work. The program that morning was complete and poignant and totally did justice to the importance of that moment in our lives- I’ll never forget it.

As a TV talk show host, Larry was often ridiculed for throwing softball questions at his guests. I always thought that criticism was unfair. He never pretended to be Edward R. Murrow (Murrow actually did his share of soft celebrity interviews in his time). Larry asked the questions your average folks sitting on the couch watching the show would ask. I would argue that was his appeal in the first place. He was the “everyman” of interviewers.

Thank you Larry

There will be many tributes to Larry King in the weeks ahead and he richly deserves all the kudos he gets for becoming an American icon and mastering his particular style of interviewing. He became a part of our national consciousness. We should be grateful to CNN and to Larry for finally figuring out that his exit was necessary and inevitable. And we should be grateful to Larry for gracing our living rooms for so many years- back when people still watched live TV in their living rooms.

Who, Exactly, is Watching Larry King?

April 14, 2010 2 comments

I did!  Watched him last night and boy, was that fun.  Almost a whole hour on Conan O’Brian’s move to the Turner Broadcasting System!   I laughed, I cried.

Except when you’re watching Larry King, life actually does go by rather fast.  I think it’s  already been five years ago or so, I heard the averge age of a Larry King viewer was 67 years old.   Surely, by now it has exceeded 70.

His latest ratings are not good.  He lost 43% of his audience in just one quarter.  Over the past three months, Joy Behar’s new show on the former Headline News beat Mr. King on 22 different occasions.  He’s averaging about 770,000 people per show now.    There are 3,141 counties in the United States.  On average, that would be almost 250 people per county glued to Larry King Live.

What could cause such massive erosion?  It’s not like he’s doing re-runs of the Life and Times of Connie Francis anymore like he used to do about a decade ago.  There are even pictures and videos of him in a car with Snoop Dogg- because everybody knows how hip and with-it those snazzy cool-cats at CNN are.

Could it be – and I swear to you I am not exaggerating here- that his audience is dying?  Literally keeling over?  I mean 2.4 million Americans die every year.    In his key 65-74 demographic, about 400,000 people can be expected to lose their lives on an annual basis.   Since last year, King has lost about 570,000 viewers.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that life expectancy is up to 77 years. Here’s an interesting fact- back when Larry King began his TV career on CNN in 1985, life expectancy in the U.S. was about 73.9.

But what’s worse than actually analyzing CDC death and mortality data to explain the audience-loss of CNN’s biggest star- is how they can keep propping this guy up there in his suspenders day in and day out as if nothing was ever going to change. They still give him a corporate Leer jet to fly around in, for crying out loud.

But it’s possible change is finally afoot at CNN.  Reportedly, they’ve been scouring the streets around Columbus Circle in New York, looking for volunteers to fill an audience for a live show with Anderson Cooper.   Perhaps a live show that may someday be on at 9pm?

Anderson’s ratings are also down over 40%- but, by golly, I think this whole live-audience concept is going to be the big break-out idea for the Cable News Network.

(The writer once ran the CNNRadio Network, back in the days Larry King was doing shows like the Life and Times of Connie Francis.)

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