Will Larry King's Retirement Spark a Renaissance at CNN?

It's going to be a make-or-break fall at CNN.

Ever the most conservative (in the nonpolitical sense) of the three major 24-hour news channels when it comes to taking programming risks, the Time Warner (TWX)-owned network is tossing caution to the wind and embarking on a major overhaul of its weeknight schedule. This week, it announced that Larry King will finally relinquish his interviewer's chair after 25 years and well over 40,000 interviews. Last week, it announced that Eliot Spitzer will co-host a nightly "spirited discussion" with conservative writer Kathleen Parker. When it's all over, two-thirds of CNN's prime-time programming will be new.

But, in a way, wiping the slate clean (save for the perennially-promising Anderson Cooper) is the opposite of risky. The real risk, as climate change scientists like to say, is doing nothing.

Already, CNN's ratings have fallen so far that Katie Couric, clearly the ideal replacement for King, is said to be uninterested in the job, even though it would be a far better fit for her talents than anchoring a dinosaur newscast. Tinkering around the edges while they fall still further would be managerial malpractice. Spitzer could turn out to be radically unfit for TV news, but as long as he attracts more viewers than a test pattern, CNN will be no worse off at 8 p.m. than it was with Campbell Brown.

Likewise, if CNN president Jon Klein thinks he's found a future star in Piers Morgan -- the British journalist whose name has surfaced repeatedly as a possible King replacement -- however unknown he may be to American viewers, what's to lose?

A Parade of Punchlines

Already, CNN has waited too long in allowing King to retire "on his own terms," as Klein put it. King's final few months on the job may constitute a "victory lap" of sorts, but his farewell also promises to be a parade of punchlines, starting with his explanation that he's retiring to spend more time with his family. That's a hoary enough cliche when a middle-aged CEO uses it. Coming out of the mouth of an eight-times-married man who filed for divorce two months ago, and who only works four hours a day anyway, it's ridiculous. And don't even get me started on King saying he's looking forward to catching more of his son's Little League games. Larry, are you sure that's a great idea?

But the worst joke of all is King's continued insistence that Ryan Seacrest would be the best person to replace him. The most favorable interpretation is that King wants a successor who will make him look good in comparison. The less favorable one is that King actually thinks interviewing heads of state is no different in substance from hosting American Idol.

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