- The Washington Times - Friday, July 24, 2009

Most of the cable networks have gone back to the news — President Obama’s health care reform plans, the wars, the economy, Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

But CNN, particularly venerable chatster Larry King, is holding steady on Michael Jackson. Four weeks after the pop star’s death, it is still almost all Jackson — often presented in half-formed sentences and repeated questions — during Mr. King’s prime-time show. Drugs! Death! Foul play! Where’s the body? Where’s Debbie Rowe? And his signature “What do you make of it?”

Tuesday night, Mr. King even devoted a segment to expert analysis of what guest Joe Jackson, Michael’s father, had said on the show a night earlier. This is cable news talk the way it used to be back in the days of the O.J. Simpson case, which made celebrities out of forensic experts, tenants and defense attorneys.

Now some of those same pundits — with the addition of Marlon Brando’s son, Miko, a close friend of Mr. Jackson’s — are again “Larry King Live” regulars. Why? Because they’re comfortable with Mr. King, 75, who straddles the line between celebrity and celebrity interviewer.

In the past few weeks, Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Quincy Jones, Liza Minnelli, Joe Jackson and Michael Jackson’s brother Jermaine have been on the show.

“I don’t think the other networks are asking for those interviews anymore,” says Chris Ariens, managing editor of Mediabistro.com’s TVNewser blog. “They have moved on. Right now, it seems only Larry King is interested. I suppose that is because he is really tied into [the entertainment] community. He was a guest at Michael Jackson’s memorial service, as opposed to someone who was just there covering it. I also think people who go on ‘Larry King Live’ know they won’t get asked the tough questions.”

They also might not be asked the accurate questions or even get to finish their answers. “Larry King Live” has had some classic moments since Mr. Jackson’s death on June 25. Mr. King called Lou Ferrigno (the bodybuilder-actor who was Mr. Jackson’s friend and trainer) “Lou Ferragamo.” (Vince Ferragamo was a Los Angeles Rams quarterback in the 1970s and ‘80s).

“I apologize,” Mr. King said after the mistake.

“He was a good quarterback,” he added by way of recovery. “We’ll be right back with Lou Ferrigno. ‘Ferrigno’ — you’ve got a weird name.”

Interviewing Jermaine Jackson at his late brother’s Neverland Ranch, Mr. King asked him what he thought of “Diana Sands” (instead of Diana Ross) being named guardian of the children.

“Well, Diana Sands was a great performer too,” the host, using his preferred recovery trope, said of the black actress, who died in 1973.

Then there was this exchange:

Mr. King to Joe Jackson: Did you get a chance to say goodbye?

Mr. Jackson: Yes, I said goodbye to him when he was up — well, when he was up there in front of us, you know? And I say — I’m saying goodbye to him now. But — and what the others say, that’s what they say. And what I’m saying is I do feel the loss of my son, Michael Jackson, who was an international star all over the world.

Mr. King: But you — you didn’t get to see the body or say anything …

Mr. Jackson: No, I did not.

Mr. King: … to the remains?

Mr. Jackson: No I did not.

Mr. King: Do you wish you could have?

That is the kind of serious-interview-turned-comedy gold that has become fodder for bloggers and critics.

“An intervention couldn’t save Michael Jackson, but maybe it’s not too late for Larry King,” wrote Chicago Tribune entertainment columnist James Rainey last week. “The King of Talk can’t stop blathering about the King of Pop. It’s been building for three weeks now, getting more and more absurd.”

TVSquad.com published this letter to Larry King:

“Dear Larry, … WOULD YOU PLEASE STOP WITH THE SHOWS ABOUT MICHAEL JACKSON?! You’ve already interviewed every Jackson lawyer (past and present), interviewed his dermatologist, talked to his friends, talked to Jermaine Jackson, given a live tour of Neverland Ranch, had Marlon Brando’s son on almost every night, interviewed Jackson’s former nurse, and you actually went to the memorial service itself and reported from there. What else can you possibly do? Are you going to have an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson’s nose? Talk to his mailman? Isn’t there anything else happening in the world you can talk about?”

Recalling that Mr. King milked the death of Anna Nicole Smith for weeks, the blog Mediafunhouse (mediafunhouse.blogspot.com) offered this analysis of the host’s ongoing Jacksonathon:

“Larry and his producers have made this his only story for a full two weeks, and my trash-o-metric ability to find programming that will allow me to do housework and Net clean-up while the TV buzzes couldn’t be more on target. From the initial heights of having big names (and one-time big names) coming on or calling in to praise Michael he’s sank to having on legal and medical ‘experts’ every single night and rehashing the same old tired platitudes about Michael and his ‘effect on the entertainment world.’ However, for true trash-o-philes, the result has been amazingly funny TV. … Larry King is perhaps the foremost practitioner of the art of reporting nothing, and doing interviews about nothing, in the current all-news cable scene.”

But, hey, it works for him.

“Larry King has always been a little bit journalist and a little bit guy from Neptune,” says Robert Thompson, professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. “Some of the goofiness quality is part of his appeal. But he is still Larry King. Not only is it a coup that he gets these guests, but it is a little bit of a coup to get on Larry King. Every era has its cultural status symbols. These days, it is being a voice on ‘The Simpsons’ or getting on Oprah or Larry King.”

“It’s about old fashioned hard work and strong relationships,” “Larry King” senior executive producer Wendy Walker said in an e-mail. “Larry is fair and trusted, which is why he’s the person newsmakers go to when they have a story to tell. He’s completed nearly 50,000 interviews over his career, and I think that number speaks volumes.”

Nielsen numbers show that CNN viewership spiked rapidly ahead of the other cable news networks in the days following Mr. Jackson’s death but have, for the most part, settled in just slightly higher than the 1.2 million average nightly viewers of Mr. King’s 9 p.m. show, which consistently finishes in second place, far behind Sean Hannity’s Fox News show in the same time slot.

Mr. Thompson says it is common for cable news networks to adopt stories as their own. Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, for instance, made the Natalee Holloway disappearance an ongoing saga. Mr. King is helping to fill in the days between real news (such as a final autopsy report).

“Cable news networks know they are going to get the numbers for big breaking news,” Mr. Thompson said. “What they have got to figure out is how to keep those viewers. One way is to develop stories so they become essentially ongoing miniseries. Networks have spent all this money covering a story, and then they are all dressed up with nowhere to go, so they try to squeeze a little bit more out of it.”

Meanwhile, despite the stunned guests (last week’s best Kingism: “Brain not returned to the family … right, Carlos?”) the ickiness of a tour of Neverland Ranch or the botched names, Mr. King is likely to keep doing his thing for many a news cycle. His contract runs through 2010.

“CNN loves Larry King,” Mr. Ariens says. “If any rumor comes up that he is retiring, CNN is the first one to tell you that Larry King can be on CNN for as long as he wants. He may misspeak or mispronounce names, but it doesn’t matter much to CNN.”

Says Mr. Thompson: “CNN will stick with Larry King as long as audiences do.”

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