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Why Was the Larry King Announcement Handled So Badly?

If we compare what we’ve known for a while vs. what was spun to us today, there’s a disconnect

I’m scratching my head over Larry King’s announcement that he’s leaving his eponymous talk show.

Not because it wasn’t time to pull the plug. And not because it’s a surprise; CNN’s clearly been busy talent-shopping for that critical 9 p.m. slot. British TV personality Piers Morgan has done everything short of buying World Cup commercial time to boast about his talks with the network. 

And only 24 hours ago, Katie Couric’s camp floated out the story that the CBS anchor had turned down the job, opening the door for Morgan (in hindsight, a leaked placement seemingly planted to hit immediately ahead of King’s announcement).

It’s just that with all the time and options available to them to strategize this, King and CNN handled the news so uncomfortably.

Here’s what we know: King released a statement late Tuesday, and reiterated it on-air Tuesday night, that he was leaving his talk show in the fall. He’ll continue with CNN as host of a handful of specials for an unspecified period of time.

Here’s what we suspect: CNN has the replacement host, most likely Morgan, already signed. But it’s PR 101 not to step on the departure announcement of an on-air talent with a following, so you don’t provoke the ire of loyal audiences and faithful co-workers. Instead, you wait a bit. Which probably explains why CNN President Jonathan Klein’s statement that followed King’s declared that, “Today is about Larry. We will announce plans for the 9 p.m. hour in the weeks ahead.”

Not to mention that no network wants to bury a big announcement about its future in the week before Independence Day or the week after, traditional news dead zones.

Most of all, here’s what we find curious: that with a prolonged period of tumbling ratings and rampant rumors, the scenario that’s being painted comes off so entirely fictional. And really, really delayed.

Getting a broadcasting lion — which King unquestionably is — to leave the air gracefully is one of the trickiest strategies imaginable. And I speak from first-hand experience, both successful and otherwise.  The standard of smooth baton-passing was Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams.

But for every one of those, you’ve got Walter Cronkite/Dan Rather, Dan Rather/Katie Couric, Jay Leno/Conan O’Brien and many more.  Ever wonder why Oprah didn’t turn over her couch?

Here’s what often happens. 

A network will see a prolonged track of flat or, more likely, continually-declining ratings; they’ll often arrange focus groups or other additional, more detailed research to determine whether there’s any way to turn the downward trend around in the months or even year ahead. If it’s a broadcast network with affiliates, they’ll be getting that feedback as well.

In most cases, the doors are opened with the agent, or the talent himself, to gauge interest in winding down. Those conversations require the diplomacy of Hillary Clinton or Madeleine Albright. I recently had to dilute a situation when a well-known elderly on-air talent with a dwindling following not only refused to consider retirement but threatened a very public age discrimination suit. (The company got cold feet and offered a new deal.)

But once that door is even slightly cracked open, some level of negotiation begins. It can be weeks but more often months, and in some cases years, before there’s an agreement. And that involves working out terms.

I’ll wager that the time-consuming specifics on the King deal, including how many specials will be aired and who’s paying for staffing and production costs, were fully negotiated to the dollar and put into a new contract before Tuesday’s announcement.

Terms can also be as seemingly minor as managing the timing as well as having the right to view and approve what Corporate says in a statemen t… which can obviously include the right to veto who’s mentioned, such as a replacement, in the announcement.

Which is why what went down Tuesday seems so unnecessarily awkward.

Over the next few weeks, the behind-the-scenes stories will come out. But for the moment, if we compare what we’ve known for a while vs. what was spun to us today, there’s a disconnect. Did King, who’s a true broadcasting survivor, figure he could hang in there despite the mounting ratings problems and industry criticism? Did CNN find itself unable to either assertively push for a change or simply stand back and wait? 

Did either side expect that those people approached for the job would keep their mouths shut?

Finally, did CNN and King believe that we’d accept an explanation about how King woke up one day recently and decided he wanted to spend more time with his wife, with whom he’s still locked in a public, messy separation? (And it was only a few months back when they first split that CNN insiders were claiming King would probably push to renew his contract because of the alimony and support payments he’d now have to make?)

I love a great story. But this one wouldn’t pass the CNN journalism test.

Flackback will explore the art and artifice of entertainment PR.  The author has 25 years' corporate experience and has finessed everything from a celebrity's drunken surprise marriage to his best friend's 16-year-old daughter to a 20-minute advance warning that her company's president was being fired. And she sees little difference between these scenarios.  She's chosen candor over a byline.