March 16 was a good day for tributes to CNN’s Larry King. But not on CNN.
Over on Fox News, personalities were lining up to praise Mr. King. Greta Van Susteren was applauding him on the air and on her blog, adding that Fox News Channel chairman Roger Ailes was also a fan. Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes broke off bickering to pay homage, while the chyron beneath them read “We Respect Larry.”
In other media, the take on Mr. King had been less charitable. L.A. Weekly’s Nikki Finke kicked things off March 10 by writing on her blog that Mr. King was said to be “increasingly frail physically.” The Wall Street Journal followed with a column accusing the CNN host of being doddering and soft—and saying that the distinctly un-soft Nancy Grace, of CNN Headline News, was viewed as his possible successor.
“We really need to get our arms around this and try to get out an accurate description of what’s going on down here,” CNN News Group president Jim Walton told NYTV on March 21. “In the United States, there seems to be some sport about Larry and Nancy that is unfounded.”
But earlier, CNN had shown no hurry to call time out. While Mr. King went about his business—Monday: the Imette St. Guillen case! Wednesday: Liza Minnelli! Thursday: Macaulay Culkin!—the network allowed seven days to elapse between the initial criticisms of Mr. King and CNN president Jon Klein’s first published defense of his prime-time star.
That left the job of coming to praise Mr. King to that other cable news channel. “We do admire Larry,” Ms. Van Susteren—the Fox News anchor and former Larry King Live guest host—told NYTV by phone March 20. “Fox isn’t afraid to admit it. Fox has never been afraid. Fox doesn’t back off from the truth. We’re not a bunch of cowards here.”
If you’re counting, that’s three “Fox”-es to one “Larry.”
Mr. King still gets the highest ratings on CNN—to the tune of more than one million nightly viewers, which is less than half of Bill O’Reilly’s audience, a fact the Fox team wasn’t too proud to acknowledge.
“Larry deserves this,” Ms. Van Susteren said of her tribute to Mr. King. “Larry is what holds that place up.” (“Larry” 3, “Fox” 3!)
And if people think that the man holding CNN up is frail and faltering ….
As days passed with no defense from Mr. Klein, Mr. King’s staff began to grow anxious. The show’s executive producer, Wendy Whitworth, held a conference call to reassure the staff that everything would be fine, according to two network sources.
The silence from the executive suite brought back some of the feeling of last fall’s ouster of NewsNight anchor Aaron Brown, whom Mr. Klein publicly referred to as the “ice” to Anderson Cooper’s “fire” a few weeks before bumping him from his anchor chair.
Mr. Klein finally came forward, in the March 17 New York Post, about whether he was thinking of giving Mr. King the old Brown heave-ho: “We’d have to be even crazier than people think TV executives are to even think about moving a legend like Larry out of his time slot—especially when he reliably attracts a very nice audience each night. There’s absolutely no truth to this idle speculation.”
Declining a request for an interview with Mr. Klein, a CNN spokesperson said those comments stand as his statement.
Mr. Walton seconded that message. “Larry’s not going anywhere,” he said. “He’s fantastic at what he does. Much like what Johnny Carson did for late-night television, Larry King has done for the interview genre.”
Yet even Carson retired eventually. And CNN has no ready answer about what would come after Mr. King does leave. Larry King Live vastly outperforms anything else in the CNN lineup, regularly doubling its lead-in from Paula Zahn and nearly doubling its follower, Anderson Cooper.
Last summer, CNN appeared to take a shot at finding a possible heir, having Bob Costas guest-host a spate of shows while Mr. King was away. But while Mr. King has relied increasingly on sensational crime stories to boost ratings, Mr. Costas refused to host an hour in August dedicated to missing teen Natalee Holloway. That incident leaked to the press. Mr. Costas denied being the source of the leak, but told The New York Times, ‘‘I don’t believe there was a single American who was sitting around saying, ‘I’d really like to see Bob Costas’s take on this.’”
Mr. Costas was lauded by newspaper editorial boards far and wide as the one reasonable person in the tabloid-obsessed television news world. So ended that experiment in grooming a successor.
Nancy Grace, meanwhile, has never had a problem saying yes to Natalee Holloway. When Larry King Live discovered a few years ago that high-profile trials led to big ratings, Ms. Grace became a frequent guest host; Mr. King’s executive producer, Ms. Whitworth, developed the current Nancy Grace program for Headline News.
In December 2003, The Observer reported on the growing perception that the frequent guest host was being groomed as Mr. King’s successor. Asked then if Ms. Grace was his own first choice as a replacement, Mr. King replied, “No. I would have a more professional host.”
On March 21, Mr. Walton said the network does not now and never has had plans to drop Ms. Grace into Mr. King’s time slot—or any other time slot at CNN. Describing Ms. Grace as “lightning in a bottle,” he said it was in the company’s strategic best interest for her to keep drawing viewers to the Headline News channel.
“It is more advantageous to the shareholders for us to continue to build that asset,” he said. “As a proud father with all our networks here, I really don’t care which one gets the highest ratings, as long as it’s a CNN-branded network.”
“Headline News is a wonderful home for me—a perfect fit,” Ms. Grace wrote in a statement issued through a publicist. “I have no plans whatsoever to leave. I am lucky to be able to do the work that I do every day for crime victims everywhere. HLN has given me that platform. On a personal note, I would not even have my show at HLN today if Larry King, Wendy (his E.P.) and his staff had not invited me to be a regular guest, and a guest host, for years. I respect and admire Larry King both as a friend and a colleague. Larry needs no replacement … in fact, there IS no replacement for Larry, simply because there is no one like him.”
But at least at one time, if not still, Ms. Grace had her eyes on CNN, according to multiple sources close to the anchor.
“I know she was initially comparing her numbers to Larry’s ratings,” said one CNN producer. “She’s clearly a very ambitious person who didn’t get to where she was by sitting by idly.”
Another source said that when her show first launched, Ms. Grace closely compared her overnight ratings to those of the CNN prime-time anchors—and most closely to one in particular.
“Screw Greta. Screw Anderson. Screw any of the other competition on the other networks,” the source said. “When we looked at the ratings, it was all about Paula.”
As an anchor, Ms. Grace is a firebrand, less concerned with legal nuance than with her own feelings about a case. As a boss, according to sources inside and outside her show, she presides over a sometimes-difficult workplace. The program is on its third director in a year, which sources described as a high rate of turnover at any television news program. At least four members of her staff have met with the network’s human-resources department to discuss problems with the management of the program, according to three sources.
As a journalist, Ms. Grace has a reputation for being impulsive. In interviews with The Observer, sources recounted frantic phone calls from the show’s lawyers minutes before Ms. Grace went on the air. In one example, one staffer said, Ms. Grace heard in the makeup room that one of her favorite villains, Neil Entwistle, a man suspected of murdering his wife and daughter, had agreed to return to the United States to stand trial. Ms. Grace was narrowly talked out of reporting the tidbit, and Mr. Entwistle remained abroad another week before being extradited.
“It amazes me we get away with some of the stuff we get away with,” said one of Ms. Grace’s producers. “There are plenty of times where we have had to fix onscreen graphics because, when someone else saw the show, they pointed out, ‘Well, the guy really isn’t guilty; he hasn’t been charged yet.’ Or, ‘You can’t call him a “suspect”—he’s a “person of interest.”’”
Still, her numbers are astronomical. Ms. Grace’s audience has nearly tripled in the year she’s been on Headline News (she also hosts two hours of live television every day on Court TV). It now tops 600,000 each night, and appears to still be growing.
“I would be surprised if she went over to the network,” said Ms. Van Susteren, who was once considered a successor to Mr. King. “It’s so off the mission of Ted Turner. Ted Turner wanted news. He didn’t want theatrics.”
“I don’t know if Jon Klein is ready for a show like that in his prime-time line-up,” said one high-ranking CNN source. “Getting rid of Aaron Brown is one thing. Putting in the antithesis of Aaron Brown may be another.”