King fights for relevancy

During a presentation to advertisers recently in New York City, CNN trotted out many of its big names: Anderson Cooper, John King, Sanjay Gupta, Candy Crowley, Nancy Grace and Wolf Blitzer, among them.

Larry King, host of what is still one of the network's top-rated shows, appeared only in a film clip that flashed by for a second or two.

These are troubled times for "Larry King Live" as it approaches its 25th anniversary in June. The show's viewership for the first three months of the year dropped 44 percent from 2009, and it usually trails Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in the time slot.

Once a pioneer, King now fights for relevancy.

There was a time when such a thought would be heresy.

"In the early days of the 1980s and 1990s, that was the place to go to get interviewed," television historian Tim Brooks said. "Any politician, including presidential candidates, had to be on his show. That brought a lot of respect to CNN, and to cable as well."

King moderated a memorable 1993 debate between Ross Perot and Vice President Al Gore. He even tried to mediate peace in the Middle East, bringing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin together on a show. His influence was equally big with entertainers. A list of bold-faced names who had sat across the table from King would take in practically everyone in the entertainment business.

In those days, Larry King was New Media. Today, entertainers have many options, from visiting hip hosts such as Jon Stewart to maintaining their own Twitter feeds. King was never a challenging interviewer, but now politicians can find downright friendly ones.

It leaves King with pleasant but meandering chats with Willie Nelson, or the chance to talk to Martina Navratilova about her cancer treatment. On the day Conan O'Brien agreed to go to TBS, King brought three reporters in to chat about it.

Think about it. When was the last must-see Larry King interview?

For a network based in Atlanta and with a large New York office, King usually works out of Los Angeles. His executive producer since 1992, Wendy Walker, works from her home in San Diego, where CNN has built a control room for her. Some who know King suggested that's a disconnected arrangement, and wonder whether he is getting the support he needs in booking and promotion. If you see an ad for CNN, it's far more likely to feature Cooper or Blitzer.

CNN would not make King, Walker or network president Jon Klein available for interviews.

In a statement, King spokesman Ryan Jimenez said, "Ratings trend just as the competitors, but what distinguishes Larry is the fact that time and time again the biggest newsmakers continue to talk with the King because he's fair and unbiased. We're extremely proud of what Larry accomplishes night after night."

King's simple, conversational style often annoys people who want interviews with more rigor and preparation. His supporters believe the everyman approach has been underestimated but worry that King, at age 76, is losing a step. Mistaking Roman Polanski for Charles Manson earlier this year was cringe-worthy. Recently, King seemed unaware of "Family Guy." And when he asked Jerry Seinfeld if his popular sitcom was canceled, it became an Internet embarrassment.

"It's almost as if he's interviewing on automatic pilot and he's picking up a ball game through his fillings," said Gail Shister, who teaches TV criticism at the University of Pennsylvania.