What Happens to CNN After Larry King Hangs Up His Crown?

When you've done a job as long as Larry King has hosted his prime-time news and views show on CNN, there's no way to leave with dignity. Though he put on a brave face and soldiered through a speech that hit all the necessary notes—this was a mutual decision, he wants to spend more time with his family, he'll still be around in a lesser capacity—King will no doubt leave his post, which he's held for a quarter century, under a cloud of suspicion that he was ushered out before he was ready to go. But King is in a good place, since he's not the one with the uncertain future. He's 76—maybe he tries out retirement and finds it's more fun than he might have expected. It's the CNN executives who need to be (and clearly are) worried about what happens next.

King's insistence that the decision to end Larry King Live was mutual came off as an especially transparent canard given CNN's rating misfortunes in prime time, with King's show hemorrhaging viewers in a particularly dramatic fashion. CNN has long prided itself on its nonpartisan approach to cable news, but in the prime-time hours, where partisan rabble-rousers like Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann hold sway, viewers clearly want the day's news filtered through a red or blue lens. Last week the network announced a new show to be co-anchored by Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer, a clear sign that the network brass are beginning to understand that in prime time, to be impartial is to be soporific. While the blogosphere has already begun to toss out names for King's possible replacement—King himself is rooting for Ryan Seacrest—the question of King's replacement for CNN seems to be what not who. Does it make any sense to sustain King's high-low sensibility with someone else at the helm, or as we're rolling into midterm elections, would it make more sense to replace his show with something more consistently Beltway oriented?

Regardless of the show that replaces him, CNN is losing one of television's finest personalities, even though his recent years weren't always representative of his best work. At the risk of hyperbole, King's departure does seem to mark the end of an era in television news. The prime-time bellowers like O'Reilly certainly pull in the viewers, but I can't imagine that such a rancorous format is sustainable for 25 years. At least, one can hope that the nation will gradually become less polarized to the point that O'Reilly and Olbermann's histrionics become less appealing, and a less-excitable steward like King will be able to keep his job as well as his ratings.