For someone who has been the face of the network for the past 25 years, you’d think CNN would have handled the departure of veteran Larry King with a little bit more dignity and respect. But a series of CNN blunders have surrounded both King’s exit from his talk show and the search for his successor. First, the network started feeling out potential replacements long before King announced on June 29th that he would be leaving the show in November. In theory, that’s not a bad idea — Larry King Live had been the cornerstone of CNN’s primetime lineup, and management had to secure a strong successor in the 9 PM slot before it let King step down. But it was also a very risky strategy as proven by the June 12th leaks in UK papers that America’ Got Talent judge Piers Morgan, a Brit, was finalizing a deal to replace King. It was a blow to Larry, who had just celebrated his 25th anniversary at CNN and deserved a proper send-off.
But there was more humiliation in store for the veteran talk-show host. Instead of organizing the announcement of King’s exit in the two weeks following the first wave of Piers Morgan/CNN stories, the network waited until June 29th, the day the Q2 ratings come out. CNN knew they wouldn’t be pretty: King already posted his lowest-rated month in at least 20 years in May. Indeed, the Q2 ratings report had Larry King Live drawing a mere 677,000 viewers and posting CNN’s biggest year-to-year demo loss of 37%. A few hours later, there was a hasty tweet by King announcing he was leaving his show. Worse, he later claimed “spending more time with family” as the reason for his retirement from the daily grind, which is never believable.
But the blunders continued the next day, with CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein saying on the record that management “never negotiated” with Morgan, only to be contradicted the following day by none other than Simon Cowell. As Morgan’s friend and America’s Got Talent producer, Cowell countered that he had been helping Morgan with the deal for weeks, prompting yet another denial by CNN, this time through a spokesperson.
And then the final insult: it came from NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker to first acknowledge, though somewhat indirectly, Morgan’s negotiations with CNN. Zucker noted in a CNBC interview that Morgan could do both his job on Talent, where he has re-upped through 2013, and the CNN gig. That opened up a whole new level of irony as Zucker knows a thing or two about botched host transitions on talk shows having orchestrated the Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien succession mess on The Tonight Show.
The spectacle surrounding the host change at Larry King Live has reminded me of the Tonight Show fiasco. After a series of missteps by CNN, let’s hope that, if Morgan indeed gets the job, he’ll last longer than Conan did. If not, he has a full-time job at NBC to fall back upon.