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Larry King’s Farewell From CNN Reflects Changing Cable News Climate

December 16, 2010 at 6:26 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with The New Yorker's Ken Auletta and Eric Deggans, TV critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, about how cable news has changed as one of its biggest stars, Larry King, hands over his long-held time slot to Piers Morgan.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Next: the ever-changing world of cable news, as one of CNN’s most prominent figures retires.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: For 25 years, Larry King has been a staple of CNN’s prime-time lineup, and, for many of those, he was cable’s biggest star, known for putting simple questions to everyone from presidents…

LARRY KING, host, “Larry King Live”: Are you angry at BP?

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, I am furious at this entire situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: … to celebrities.

LARRY KING: Did you always know you had that voice?

BARBRA STREISAND, musician: A little bit when I was a young girl.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of King’s most famous and newsworthy shows came in 1993, when he hosted a debate on NAFTA between then Vice President Al Gore and Ross Perot. It drew 20 million viewers, CNN’s largest ever audience for a regularly scheduled program.

LARRY KING: The last night of “Larry King Live.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Tonight, King is hanging up his suspenders and handing over his time slot to Piers Morgan, who is best known for his work as a judge on reality TV shows in Britain and the U.S.

Although “Larry King Live” hasn’t altered its format over the years, the cable news industry has changed considerably. When King started, CNN was the only 24 hour cable news network, providing a mix of live coverage of breaking stories and analysis and debate programs that would reach around the globe.

Today, CNN lags in a cable world that’s largely moved from nonpartisan reporting toward sharp opinion, dominated by newer stars and personalities at rivals FOX News and MSNBC.

And “Larry King Live,” once the most watched cable news program, long ago lost that title to FOX’s “O’Reilly Factor” and has recently seen its lowest ratings ever, falling in its own time slot to the third or sometimes fourth most watched cable news show at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

And we get some further thoughts about King and the evolution of the cable new business. It comes from Ken Auletta, who writes about the media for “The New Yorker,” and Eric Deggans, the TV critic for The St. Petersburg Times.

Ken Auletta, fill that picture in a little bit for us with the start of the cable world that Larry King was part of in the beginning. Describe it and what he brought to it.

KEN AULETTA, “The New Yorker”: Well, what he did, I mean, he was — obviously, it was a show — it was an hour-long show. He was able to get most any guest he wanted to get. And they were from presidents to celebrities to Michael Jackson to freaks. And I mean that almost literally, though it could be interpreted figuratively as well.

But it was a comfortable place, a safe place for people to come and basically show their leg. They could say what they wanted. Larry King wasn’t an aggressive interviewer. He got a lot of good information out of people, but, essentially, it was a safe environment.

And contrast that with good interview shows, let’s say Tim Russert when he was doing “Meet the Press,” or your show. People — there’s an element of surprise, an element of fear that people have: What am I going to get asked?

And you never had that with Larry King.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Eric Deggans, and that — that world of CNN, at the time, the only cable news out there, so he’s pioneering; they’re pioneering. Take us back to what was going on there.

ERIC DEGGANS, The St. Petersburg Times: Well, you hit the nail on the head.

The fact that CNN was the only cable news outlet at the time gave Larry a wide latitude. And he presented the kind of show that we were used to seeing on the networks. It was more general interest. It was wide-ranging. They were lots of different kinds of people on the show.

And Larry himself had a really broad appeal. They basically took a radio show that he was doing that was syndicated and did a TV version of it. That’s why you still have that old-school broadcast microphone on his desk even to this day.

And I think one of Larry’s problems right now is that he’s doing a very general interest show in a very specific, niche-oriented cable news environment. And he’s suffering for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, fill — Eric, fill in that picture. The world has clearly changed, the world of cable news. What world is it now that you see?

ERIC DEGGANS: Well, obviously, partisan punditry has become sort of the coin of the realm in prime-time cable news at least.

And there’s a sense that people throughout the day, thanks to the Internet, have — they already know the news of the day when you get to 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, which is essentially cable’s prime time.

And, so, people like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann, who have these very partisan, very aggressive, very opinionated views about things based on party affiliation, those — they’re — they’re the stars now.

And Larry was never like that. He’s never been like that. And so I think what happens is, the serious news viewers who might have enjoyed Larry King and consumed him, they’re doing other things. They’re catching up on the Internet. They’re watching shows on DVR.

I myself watch prime-time entertainment on the networks in 7:00 and 8:00 and 9:00. And I’m not watching cable news. And the people who are, I think, they want more partisan punditry

JEFFREY BROWN: Ken, some of this, of course, is economic, right? It’s a cheaper production model to go to the kind of talk shows we see most evenings on cable news.

But talk about that and what Eric is talking about, this move towards more of a partisanship.

KEN AULETTA: There’s no question.

If you think back to the early days of CNN, Ted Turner created it. The idea was to have a world news network, and there was no other competition. And you would get really fair, balanced news. And Larry King was an attempt at that. He basically gave people a platform to speak.

He drew out a lot of good information. But he wasn’t partisan, as Eric said. And now what’s happened is that, basically, you realize you can get the news any time you want. And it’s very expensive to do investigative reporting. It’s very expensive to have viewers overseas.

So, let’s have people sitting in a studio, in an audience, and basically bloviating and giving their opinion. It’s very inexpensive to do that. And what’s happened is that people increasingly say, hey, wait a second, I want to go to FOX for my conservative opinion or I want to go to MSNBC for my liberal opinion, and forget — Larry King, this kind of neutered news, it’s — it’s — it’s not exciting.

And, so, what happened? CNN loses its way, because then they try and compete that. At least in certain parts, they have. They have tried to do that. And it’s all a mess. And, essentially, cable news is opinion news. It’s not reporting.

ERIC DEGGANS: Well, you know, I would also point out…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, go ahead, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS: I would point out one other thing. Beyond the idea of cost, what Bill O’Reilly does is reliable.

And the problem that CNN has is that people turn to CNN when there’s big news happening, when the Chilean miners are being rescued, when we have an election that’s really important in 2008. That’s when they had some of their biggest ratings ever.

But when there’s not a news event, you know, investigative journalism doesn’t always pan out. You can spend a lot of time on a major story and have it not turn out.

But Bill O’Reilly is going to be provocative every day of the week. And part of the problem that CNN has is that it’s not reliable for viewers. They can tune into Keith Olbermann, they can tune into O’Reilly, and they know they are going to get a show, whereas, with Anderson Cooper, well, maybe, one day, he will have a great interview. Maybe, the next day, he won’t.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, Ken, it’s interesting, though. Larry King, of course, was a — is a personality. We still have personality-driven shows.

But you’re saying it’s a different kind of personality now. I couldn’t help watching our little setup as it came by the tag for Piers Morgan, the new guy that’s taking over. It’s — the tag is “a bit dangerous” is what they say.

KEN AULETTA: Yes. And, well — but, essentially, you know, cable — if you watch Bill O’Reilly, he’s dangerous. Keith Olbermann — they’re dangerous. They’re unpredictable. It’s like live television used to be. What is going to happen next?

And that’s one of the reasons why, in fact, their audience is much larger than CNN’s audience was 20 years ago, when Larry King started, and more when he started his show. And — but it’s still a limited, niche audience. It’s people want to — who have an expectation, like Bill O’Reilly, like his point of view, and — but also like the surprise. What outrageous thing is he going to say today?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Ken Auletta and Eric…

ERIC DEGGANS: And I will break in — I will break in again real quick…

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, go ahead. Briefly, go ahead.

ERIC DEGGANS: … real quick, and say, I’m surprised CNN is continuing with the interview model, to be frank.

I think the audience has voted. And what they want is the Bill O’Reilly/Keith Olbermann style presentation. I’m surprised they’re bringing on someone else to try hour-long interviews. As dangerous as he is, I think viewers have kind of voted and said they — they’re not interested in that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will see what happens. Eric Deggans and Ken Auletta, thanks a lot.