Larry King: Will Plunging Ratings Hasten His Retirement?

Ratings for Larry King Live have plunged an astonishing 43%. The tumble is part of an overall ratings drop for CNN.Larry King is old. How old, you ask? Well, his Teleprompter screen is written in cuneiform. He once had Mary Todd Lincoln on his show and then forgot who she was. And did you know the first sentence Anderson Cooper ever spoke was a joke about how old Larry King is?

But any time the subject of retirement has come up, the only thing King -- who is 76, in point of fact -- had to do was point to the ratings. Even though his show was not even close to competitive with Hannity & Colmes on Fox News, Larry King Live was always CNN's bedrock prime-time franchise, drawing viewers, advertisers and newsmakers. All the other trouble spots in the network's schedule made finding a successor for King a distinctly low priority.

That could change soon. In the first quarter of 2010, Larry King Live's audience dropped an astonishing 43% -- from 1.34 million viewers last year to 771,000 this year. King was far from alone in taking a nosedive. Across its prime-time schedule, CNN's ratings were down 39% among total viewers and 42% in the demographic that most determines ad spending, adults aged 25 to 54. And that's after his ratings in that demographic actually increased somewhat from February to March. Says Jon Klein, president of CNN U.S., "While Larry's competitors have moved to partisan extremes, his show continues to be the destination program for the big interviewers and the top newsmakers, and we are proud of the work he does."

Retirement Approaching?

But with a contract that makes him one of the highest-paid personalities in cable news -- his last deal reportedly paid $7 million a year -- King is a bigger target than either Campbell Brown or Cooper, his prime-time bookends. His current deal runs until June 2011, but contains no guarantee that CNN won't move him out of the 9 p.m. slot he's occupied since 1985.

Speculation about who will replace King has been alive for so long, it could apply for a learner's permit. Names in the mix have ranged from Ryan Seacrest, King's frequent fill-in host and preferred successor, to Katie Couric, whose commitment to CBS ends almost exactly when King's contract is up. Internal contenders include Cooper and John King, who now has his own 7 p.m. show.

Cooper's ratings were also down sharply in the first quarter, but his advocates can blame some of that on the smaller lead-in audience he's been inheriting from King. And while Cooper, at 42, may have more gray hair than King, whose mane remains suspiciously brown, save for the temples, Cooper would probably be willing to put in more than the three hours a day King reportedly spends at the office. That additional prep time may be helpful when it comes to remembering details of guests' biographies, such as whether Jerry Seinfeld ended his show voluntarily or got canceled.

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