At the close of Larry King’s big 70th-birthday special on Nov. 19, Larry King Live ‘s executive producer Wendy Whitworth and guest host Dr. Phil McGraw surprised the suspendered superhost by bringing his wife and children onto the set.
“Tonight wouldn’t be complete if you didn’t have the really important people,” said Dr. McGraw.
While Mr. King may not have been “surprised” by his family’s appearance-”Oh my gosh!” he exclaimed-he was genuinely taken aback by the other “important” woman hoisting his candlelit birthday cake. It was not his wife, Shawn, but Nancy Grace, the blond prosecutor and TV legal analyst who has become the de facto attack dog for Mr. King’s many Jacko-Kobe-Laci episodes.
Larry King, asked NYTV, do you consider Ms. Grace among your most “important people”?
“No,” said Mr. King, “I was surprised she came running on the set.”
But while Ms. Grace may not be an honorary King family member-the producer said she was on the set for a scuttled Michael Jackson episode, and an extra hand was needed with the cake-Ms. Grace has become a near-permanent fixture on Mr. King’s show, appearing 44 times in the last six months-six times as guest host-and swallowing up air time almost daily in November, during the Jackson media blowout. Ms. Grace’s hard-nosed style-pointed, often snarling pretrial accusations at everyone from Gary Condit to Mr. Jackson-aren’t exactly manna from heaven for Mr. King.
“Her style can drive you crazy,” he said. “You either like her or you don’t like her. She’s awfully rough. But she’s a classic example of what cable television is today. We’ve become … conjectural . I can’t say I love it very much. But you have to do it.”
Mr. King said he liked Ms. Grace as a person-they’ve hung out socially a total of four times, he said, since she began appearing on the show in 1999-but privately, some of Mr. King’s friends and associates told The Observer that the host was uncomfortable with Ms. Grace’s rising profile on the show. There have been, needless to say, whispers both inside and outside the company that Ms. Grace is being groomed to eventually replace Mr. King. Certainly, she is emblematic of Larry King Live ‘s focus on the tacky tabloid trials that have reigned supreme in the past few years. Mr. King said Ms. Grace “represents a kind of thinking-and it might be true in 60 percent of America-[that] if you’re accused, you did it.” Then he reiterated: “She’s the kind of personality you either love or hate.”
For the producer, Ms. Whitworth, it’s love: She said that ratings had improved when Ms. Grace was on-air. “She gets a lot of callers,” she said. “People want to talk to her. The other day, I was calling my family on Thanksgiving and I called one of my sisters and she said, ‘Do you know Nancy Grace? And is she really like that in real life?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, she’s exactly that way,’ and she said, ‘I really like her!’”
But as to talk of Ms. Grace being set up to replace Mr. King, Ms. Whitworth denied those rumors outright.
“No. I think Nancy is a great talent, and she’s going to go on and have her own shows,” she said. “She’s an amazing talent, but Larry and I-if CNN still wants us-will be knocking on the door in 2005. I don’t think Larry is ever going to retire. I think Larry is going to do this the rest of his life.”
“I’m not sure they’re grooming Nancy Grace to replace Larry,” said a CNN producer who declined to be named. But, the producer continued, “if in the unthinkable future there’s no more Larry King, I don’t think there’s anyone within CNN that thinks that Nancy Grace won’t have that show. And they have to think about who is going to replace him.”
While Ms. Grace is not a CNN employee-she’s an anchor for Court TV’s Closing Arguments -she frequently appears in CNN’s 15-second promotional advertisements for Larry King Live , sometimes alongside Johnnie Cochran, with whom she co-hosted the failed Court TV show Cochran and Grace in 1996. Ms. Grace’s head is nearly as big as Mr. King’s in those promos-more evidence, say critics, that Mr. King’s show has gotten further away from its traditional one-on-one interview format and more toward “Larry King: Traffic Cop for Tabloid Talkers.”
“Larry’s amazing; he can ask anyone anything,” said the producer. “They’ve settled for some reason into this legal show, because it’s really easy to do and the numbers are what they are. There’s very little variety: Sometimes it’s just stunning that every night they do this Laci story.”
Ms. Whitworth said that Ms. Grace was her first choice for a fill-in host, but only for legal shows, of which there have been a great many, starting with the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. For his part, however, Mr. King said that Ms. Grace was not his first choice as a fill-in host.
“No,” he said, “I would have a more professional host, but she’s gotten better and better.”
Anyone who has watched the show in the last year has observed Mr. King’s visible displeasure with Ms. Grace’s style, as he grows agitated with her conjectures on the guilt of subjects like Mr. Jackson.
“It’s increasingly clear that King himself is uncomfortable with her rancid behavior,” noted Bob Somerby, the editor of the incisive Beltway Web site, The Daily Howler , back in May.
“One had to be stunned by the ferocity of lawyer Nancy Grace on Larry King’s show Tuesday night,” noted the New York Post ‘s Liz Smith on Nov. 20. “She is ready to lead Michael to the tumbrel right now!”
One of Mr. King’s longest and closest friends, best-selling author Herb Cohen-who appeared on the show on Oct. 4, discussing his new book Negotiate This! By Caring, But Not T-H-A-T Much -said he didn’t know how Mr. King felt about Ms. Grace, but that he was uncomfortable with her style. “He is uncomfortable with extreme positions, whether they be on the left or on the right,” Mr. Cohen said of Mr. King. “And, legally, he’s uncomfortable with people who forget about the presumption of innocence. Because Larry is a raging moderate. So someone like this would be uncomfortable with anybody with an extreme position.”
Reached for comment, Ms. Grace described her disagreements with Mr. King as familial.
“I think so much of Larry,” she said in a Southern drawl, “and his wife and family, to me it’s like arguing with a family member at the dinner table.” As for any offers from CNN, Ms. Grace said she wouldn’t even consider it.
“I’m under contract here at Court TV,” she said. “And I’ll be blunt with you, I miss the courtroom.”
Ms. Grace’s own story is classic Court TV fare: After her fiancé was murdered in 1979, she became a prosecutor in Atlanta, where she said she won nearly 100 criminal trials in the space of 10 years. In the last three years, she made her name flogging tabloid-crime suspects on TV well before they were tried in a court of law, most notably Gary Condit and Richard Ricci, the initial suspect in the Elizabeth Smart abduction. A year before Ms. Smart had been found, Ms. Grace spent ample air time lobbing scrutiny at Mr. Ricci, who was eventually exonerated-but not before he died in prison of a brain hemorrhage.
On the March 12 edition of Larry King Live , Mr. King asked Ms. Grace point-blank if she felt guilty about “all the whacks we took at Mr. Ricci on this show?”
“No, I don’t,” said Ms. Grace. Then Mr. King countered, “But on this program, Mr. Ricci got whacked around and it wasn’t him.”
Ms. Grace said, “I’m not going on a guilt trip, and I’m not letting you take the police with me on a guilt trip.”
“She represents a wide circle of viewers who believe that arrest is tantamount to” guilt, said Mr. King. “And I’ve never had an opinion about a trial unless I’ve been on a jury-and I’ve never been on a jury.
“She can open up your pores,” he added. “But she is definitely a classic television personality. The guy who cuts my hair worships her.”
Ms. Whitworth, the producer, became somewhat flummoxed when asked about her boss’ on-air chemistry with Ms. Grace. She called it “interesting.” “He challenges her,” she said, “and the thing that’s nice about it is, he can-he does, he challenges … it’s an interesting … I don’t think he’s uncomfortable. I think he challenges her when he disagrees with her.”
But Ms. Whitworth-who has been with CNN for 23 years-may not be in the best position to know Mr. King’s feelings lately. The producer, who moved from Washington, D.C., to California along with Mr. King in the 1996, operates from a control booth built into her house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., about two hours from Mr. King’s Los Angeles studio.
In a recent feature on Ms. Whitworth in More magazine, called “My Place,” she showed off her four-acre ranch, her 19th-century Italian table, her King Charles spaniel, her gardens designed by Kate Sessions. “My job is to get the perfect guest,” she told the magazine. “No matter where I am-on a plane or a Ferris wheel-I’m still available by phone to make a decision. My dream get is Doris Day-I’d love to hear her talk about Rock Hudson.”
It’s the sort of thing that irks staffers in other parts of the CNN empire.
” Larry King Live is seen as an untouchable fiefdom, and people at the network certainly resent that,” said another CNN producer. “When people look at the ratings and say, ‘Now that they don’t surpass the rest of the networks, you’re not so special any more.’
“They are very protective about us using their material,” the producer continued. “If you want to use a sound bite-absolutely not. They are afraid the rest of the network is going to ruin their stars.”
“That’s not true,” said Ms. Whitworth. “I want them to use information. We’ve encouraged that-in fact, we usually talk to the network after the show and tell them what’s on it.”
As for the show’s exclusivity on guests, Ms. Whitworth said, “It depends on who the guest is. It’s case by case.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Whitworth’s taste in guests is not exactly the same as his own, said Mr. King. For instance, he said he’d been reading Jon Meacham’s new book Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship , which he’d love to talk about on his show.
“It’s a great book, but we would not do that guy,” he said. “Do I like that book better than talking about Michael Jackson? Yes.” Among Mr. King’s first interviews, in 1961, was Eleanor Roosevelt.
The show’s hold on cable viewers has dipped in recent years, partly thanks to the anti–Eleanor Roosevelt news network, Fox. Mr. King’s numbers are still relatively high, at one million viewers on an average night, but Larry King Live is regularly beaten by Fox News’ 9 p.m. show, Hannity and Colmes -which Ms. Whitworth said she did not consider a competitor.
“With all respect to Hannity and Colmes ,” she said, “my eye is not on them. My eye is on basically what is happening today and what do we need to cover. It’s a different show; it has nothing to do with us. We’re totally different shows. We’re not competing with each other. They have opinions .”
But isn’t that what Ms. Grace brings to the table?
“I’m not mimicking that style,” she said, “because Larry is not giving his opinion. When Nancy guest-hosts, she’s not giving her opinion.”
Still, it’s a sweaty struggle for the Superhost. Mr. King’s dominance for A-list “gets” like Britney Spears, Elizabeth Smart and Jessica Lynch is being assaulted. His interviews with news subjects like former President Bill Clinton are still among the best on television-and his forthcoming roster of heavies is also impressive: Laura Bush (Dec. 8), Oprah Winfrey (Dec. 9) and Jimmy Carter (Dec. 10). But the rest of his programming is a mixture of legal shows and gabfests with old buddies and assorted celebrities like Andy Griffith and Corey Feldman. The result, said one CNN insider familiar with the show’s data, is that Larry King Live typically “kills in the 65-plus demo.”
Certainly Mr. King’s forthcoming book, due out in March 2004, is forward-looking, but not exactly in the way CNN’s demographers might like: It’s called Remember Me When I’m Gone , a compendium of projected epitaphs dreamed up by his interviewees, from Alan Alda to Laura Schlessinger.
And Mr. King said he pines for a time when the media wasn’t so rabid. He said that he was really glad the press had limited access to President Bush’s Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad. “I don’t feel offended that the press wasn’t kept in on the secret,” he said.
“For one, the press was there-we don’t have to know his every movement in advance. I wish in 1963 the movement of the Kennedy parade in Dallas wasn’t known. Sometimes we know too much. I’m glad they kept them out.”