When Larry King, the 77-year-old American television host announced in June that he was planning to retire at the end of the year, it didn't come as a huge surprise. Ratings for Larry King Live, his prime-time talk show, had been on the decline for some time and sure enough, King aired his last show on December 16. After lengthy contract negotiations, Piers Morgan was eventually announced as his successor. CNN's decision to place Morgan, an ex-tabloid newspaper editor and a judge on Britain's Got Talent, at the helm of one of their major shows says something quite significant about the wants and needs of the modern-day American viewing public.
Larry King Live first aired in 1985 and its popularity helped establish CNN as the major player in American cable news. At its peak, the show regularly topped ratings charts and featured the most recognisable faces of the day - notably from both the political and entertainment world. A number of factors contributed to the early appeal of the show, not least that it was fluffier and more accessible than anything that had come before it.
King was by no means universally loved, yet there's no denying that he conducted his interviews in inimitable style. Is it a sign of the times then, that his replacement has such an utterly different technique? For although his choice in braces always veered towards the garish, the gravelly voiced presenter favoured the subtle interview approach. King never really seemed concerned with extracting hard truths from his various guests, and he steadfastly avoided bombarding them with a barrage of intimate questions. He defended his soft style by claiming that in simply allowing his guests the space to relax, they were more likely to drop their guard and give a real insight into their personalities.
His apologists called his style laissez faire; his critics dismissed it as lazy. What his anti-aggressive stance did earn him was a deluge of willing guests from all areas of the public eye. King's refusal to relentlessly probe his subjects and his willingness to merely sit back and let them talk made him popular with well-known figures who had, for whatever reason, experienced a hard time and were keen for a bit of self-promotion, without fear of being crucified by a hard-nosed, acerbic interviewer.
The show gained both popularity and notoriety when in 1992 Ross Perot announced his decision to run for president on air. After that, Larry King Live became an essential pitstop for politicians with White House aspirations; King has, rather impressively, interviewed every US president since Richard Nixon.
His guest list has always been eclectic to say the least: OJ Simpson, Margaret Thatcher and Lady Gaga are just a few names that spring to mind, from a long, long list. While he was largely praised for his ability to fuse the world of politics and celebrity, segueing seamlessly from the intellectual to the inane, his rather bizarre refusal to conduct any research on his subjects prior to interview left him open to criticism, embarrassment and ridicule.
In recent years, viewing figures have dwindled and news shows on other cable channels have increased in popularity. Modern-day cable news has become ever more political and increasingly partisan; presenters such as Bill O'Reilly, who fronts the The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News and Keith Olbermann who hosts MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann are renowned for their combative, controversial, take-no-prisoners approach, which is a far cry from the genial, sometimes sycophantic mode of questioning favoured by King.
Perhaps then, it is far from surprising that Morgan has been appointed as the anchor for CNN's new prime-time news programme, which is due to start in January. Morgan is certainly no soft touch, nor is he inclined to shy away from controversy (court it to his own advantage, more likely). As he demonstrated with Piers Morgan's Life Stories, the British show on which he interviewed the likes of Cheryl Cole, Richard Branson and Gordon Brown, this is a man who isn't afraid to probe, bait and expose his subject. This altogether more rigorous approach is far more in keeping with the current style of American political news analysis and could well rejuvenate CNN's waning popularity in this area, while simultaneously increasing Morgan's already considerable celebrity, of course.
* Emily Shardlow