What Is Larry King's Legacy?

After 25 years on the air, talk show veteran Larry King is hanging up his suspenders tonight. The show, Larry King Live on CNN, has brought the network multiple awards and even a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest running show with the same host, in the same time slot. Host Michel Martin speaks with the Pulitzer Prize-winning, former television critic for the Los Angeles Times, Howard Rosenberg, about King's television legacy.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, R&B star El DeBarge is back with a new album, "Second Chance." He shares his struggle with addiction and his journey back. That is later. But, first, we want to talk about a man who is stepping away from the mic today after many decades on the air, CNN's Larry King. He made this announcement this past June.

Mr. LARRY KING (Host, "Larry King Live"): Twenty-five years ago, I sat across this table from New York Governor Mario Cuomo for the first broadcast ever of "Larry King Live." And, now, decades later, I talked to the guys here at CNN and I told him I'd like to end "Larry King Live," the nightly show that - this fall and CNN has graciously accepted to agree to.

MARTIN: Joining us to talk more about Larry King's legacy is Howard Rosenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former television critic for The Los Angeles Times. He now teaches news ethics at the University of Southern California. Howard Rosenberg, thanks so much for joining us again.

Professor HOWARD ROSENBERG (News Ethics, University of Southern California): Hi, Michel, how are you?

MARTIN: Now, you know, I take it you're not a fan, and we'll get to the reasons why you're not a fan a little bit later. But, first, I wanted to ask you, what do you think is the - what's his legacy and why do you think he's been so popular all these years?

Prof. ROSENBERG: Well, his legacy and why has he been so popular, I have to admit there were times I asked myself the same question. Look, on the one hand he has been generally well-liked because of his regular guy image, the every man you could meet down at the corner deli and have a big schmooze with over a bagel and cream cheese and that's the image that he cultivated and he really coveted. And, also, the psychology that people will watch a show with guests they want to see, and he certainly had those kinds of guests. And one that covers topics they want to hear about and I guess you'd have to say that was true.

But, you know, in the main, his show resonated far beyond his raw audience ratings, which were never really that high, because his viewers included lots of news media, and you know as well as I do that news media tend to write and talk about what they see. So if only one million people saw his show on a given night, perhaps two million heard about it.

But bottom line, I think, when you look at it, "Larry King Live" is really a metaphor for all of CNN: fast start followed by dominance, then steep decline. And through this whole process through the years, again, like the rest of CNN, I think his show became increasingly tabloid.

You know, Bob Costas, the sportscaster, I don't know, four or five years ago, maybe, was hired to substitute, to host for Larry and he refused to host an hour about Natalee Holloway, you know, the missing teenager, because he felt the topic had been done to the extreme. I just wish that Larry King had been inclined to take those kinds of stands himself. You know, we've done 25 shows speculating on who murdered JonBenet Ramsey, do we need a 26th? But as far as I know, he never did that. And that is sort of his legacy.

MARTIN: Now, he's had a severe ratings slide in recent years and as you mentioned, but his ratings were high for cable. I mean, because everybody in the country doesn't have access to cable, but his ratings have plummeted significantly just in the last year. I wonder why you think that is.

Prof. ROSENBERG: Well, you know, one never knows why that happens either. If CNN knew, they would be able to remedy it. And, again, you have to look at the big picture. He's not the only corpse in this coffin. All of CNN is having a hard time. And, plus, the competition has gotten much more fierce. You know, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow are really creaming him now. And I think for a long time he didn't have that kind of competition. And, also, all of television is cyclical. It just happens to everybody, you know. Something is hot for sometimes a long time and then it gets cold. I think it was just the inevitable.

MARTIN: I want to just play a short clip from an interview with boxer Mike Tyson. I think it kind of gives an example of what it is that you're talking about, that every-guy approach, very accessible. Here it is.

Prof. ROSENBERG: Sure.

(Soundbite of show, "Larry King Live")

Mr. KING: Do you ever look back and say, I'm not that guy I was?

Mr. MIKE TYSON (Boxer): All the time. All the time. And, you know, you have no idea what was going on with my life back then. What was going on back then with this guy?

Mr. KING: What, in effect, what the most changed you?

Mr. TYSON: I don't know. I just knew I had to grow up. I had an incident where I lost my daughter in some family accident at home, and it was just a time to grow up and wake up.

Mr. KING: That was, of course, the worst incident in your life, right?

Mr. TYSON: Pretty much. Pretty much. Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, this goes to why you were not a fan, because you felt that, particularly in addressing political leaders, there just wasn't enough, you know, edge. There were not enough information. It was kind of like two guys having a cup of coffee.

Mr. ROSENBERG: Right.

MARTIN: But, and so - we'll post one of your columns about that, just so people can understand your views more fully. But finally, though, Howard, do you feel that he will be missed? Or do you think that it really has - is time for him to move on?

Mr. ROSENBERG: Well, I think it's just time to move on. It remains to be seen whether CNN will miss him. I think they were really ready for him to leave, you know. And I think, you know, his successor will be Piers Morgan, and I think any similarity between Piers Morgan and Larry King will be purely coincidental. I don't think this guy will wear suspenders.

No, I don't really think he'll be missed, even though he was very popular with the entertainment community out here.

MARTIN: All right. Howard Rosenberg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former television critic for the Los Angeles Times. He's currently teaching news ethics at the University of Southern California. He was with us on the line from Los Angeles.

Howard Rosenberg, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. ROSENBERG: My pleasure.

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