No sooner had Larry King made his brief, classy announcement that he's stepping down from his weeknight CNN talk show this fall, did the ongoing speculation about his replacement hit overdrive.
That's understandable – King, for a quarter-century, has been the bespectacled, increasingly craggy face of CNN and his name alone invites royal puns about succession. Besides, the media loves a good who’s-next TV story, even if slots on the network nightly newscasts, late-night talk shows and afternoon gabfests aren’t as vaunted as they were in the hey days of Cronkite, Carson and Winfrey.
But we'll posit that the key question isn't what big name should be CNN's next marquee host as much as what should the show become?
These, of course, are intricately related queries – the host's personality and journalism chops, or lack thereof, will drive the program. But perceived star power shouldn’t drive CNN’s decision.
We'll suggest that CNN executives take their time this summer to think hard and creatively about how to reclaim the hour the network once staked out as its own – and take the franchise into an uncertain future.
When "Larry King Live" debuted 25 years ago, CNN was the only 24-hour cable news network, and the show was the only place in primetime where viewers could see live interviews with newsmakers of the day, and the occasional celebrity.
King's conversational, non-confrontational style, if not exactly hard-hitting journalism, generally served the viewers well, particularly early on. He was interactive before the Internet, letting callers ask the tough questions – a device he transferred from his storied, too-often-overlooked career in radio.
He got out of radio before the talk branch of the medium became dominated by those trafficking in, at best, provocation, and, at worst, hate. But King, whose ratings have plummeted in the last year, is exiting TV in an age where partisanship, sometimes bordering on demagoguery, too often fuels news network talk shows.
Which leaves CNN executives with tough decisions: Do they go the way of the competition and enlist a host with an unabashed point of view (like King’s choice of guest for Tuesday’s announcement – Bill Maher)? Do they go to a hard-news-of-the-day format, ala "Nightline" in the Ted Koppel years (Anderson Cooper or someone else in the CNN stable)? Do they go for a “personality” and let celebrity power the show (King’s professed favorite Ryan Seacrest)? Do they go for someone as comfortable with fluff as gravitas (Katie Couric)?
Or do they rewrite the formula in a bid to attract a younger audience that doesn’t care much about time slots and is more likely to get its news, commentary and insight online than from TV (your guess is as good as ours)?
The decision likely will say as much about the quest for ratings as it will about CNN’s long-term commitment to retaining its image – accurate or not – as the news network for viewers who haven't necessarily made up their minds.
King, especially in recent years, took more than his fair share of ribbing and criticism – for everything from his personal travails to his off-the-cuff, sometimes cornball, occasionally clueless, questioning style. But let’s give the man his due: unlike many TV show hosts these days, he does more listening than talking.
As for CNN’s next big idea, we’re all ears.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.