With show's end, what Larry King leaves behind

CNN talk-show host Larry King's thousands of interviews chronicle 25 years of popular culture.

By , Staff writer

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    Al Gore (l.) and Ross Perot debate on Larry King Live in 1993. Their meeting sparked CNN's ratings.
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First Oprah, now Larry King – one by one the icons of an earlier age of broadcasting are clearing the stage.

Tuesday night, the CNN veteran announced that it was time to hang up his suspenders. His 25 year run on the cable news network both landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records (longest running TV show in the same time slot with the same host) as well as hot water with fellow reporters and critics who often cringed at his softball questions and unabashed chumminess with interviewees.

This is the passing of an era, says media expert Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” Regardless of what CNN decides to do in that time slot, the Fordham Universisty professor adds, today’s media landscape of these high-profile departures is radically different from the world in which they came of age.

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“Today’s audiences are increasingly getting their news and celebrity information, both of which Larry King provided, from other sources, the internet and mobile phones,” he says. “The days of audiences patiently sitting in front of television for an hour-long talk show [are] fast disappearing.”

Neither Ms. Winfrey nor Mr. King are going gently into the night, however. Oprah will soon launch her own 24-hour branded cable network, and King has said he will remain available for specials and guest spots on CNN.

Both figures chose their own moments to move on and not surprisingly, the digital landscape is alive with tributes for the 76 year-old former radio announcer. In 1985, he was the struggling cable news outlet’s first big star. King’s popularity, which peaked in 1993 with some 11 million viewers for his Al Gore/Ross Perot debate, helped put CNN on the map.

His ratings slumped in the past year, to below 700,000 viewers, which led to widespread predictions that he would be fired. But by both CNN’s official account and his own remarks on the air, the decision to leave his nightly interview chair was his own.

While King was often derided by the serious news media who disdained his often-fumbling interviews and his lack of preparedness – he prided himself on not boning up on his subjects and he even once asked a Catholic priest how many children he had – the respect and range of his unique career was perhaps epitomized by the well-wishing on-air phone calls he took from both ABC news anchor Diane Sawyer and morning talk show host Regis Philbin.

“I will miss him,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. Part of King’s attraction was his sheer longevity and unpredictability, he says. “You never knew what was going to happen on those shows,” says Mr. Thompson, pointing out that King’s catalog of interviews now nears some 50,000 – with everyone from Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Reagan, all the way down to flash celebrities such as Darva Conger (anyone remember her?), to rambling but ultimately revealing chats with the likes of Paris Hilton.

“Regardless of what you may think of the man or even his interviewing skills, which were often dubious,” says Thompson with a laugh, “the volume of material he leaves behind will be an invaluable record” for anyone looking for a chronicle of the popular thought over a quarter of a century.

[Editor's note: The original version overstated the number of interviews Mr. King has conducted.]

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