Tips from the titans of talk

As I enter the world of talk TV, I seek out the wisdom of Larry King, master of lowbrow chat, and take notes as self-assured Tim Russert wipes the floor with George "I'm no liberal" Stephanopoulos.

Published February 13, 2003 11:21PM (EST)

I've signed on to host a series of TV talk shows for the cable network CNBC. Whether I will be any good at this remains to be seen. To do TV properly you have to unlearn virtually everything you know as a print journalist. I got some of my best interviews as a magazine profile writer by being a furtive, watchful presence in a low-cut sweater. I suspect TV will require something more forthright. The show's format will be round-table discussions rather than one-on-one interviews. I'm hoping this will minimize the number of long, embarrassing silences.

The round-table discussion genre is a booming niche, amped up to a deafening pitch in time of imminent war. Colin Powell made a knackering visit to all the Sunday morning shows last weekend selling the Time Is Running Out scenario.

It's clear why Tim Russert of NBC is the reigning king of smart TV on Sunday mornings, where he wins the ratings race against Clinton's ex-consigliere George Stephanopoulos on ABC. Russert is a strong-jowled inside-the-Beltway dopester, the transmutation of Irish political operative into network TV operative. He grills his guests with an amphibious glare and the pointed waving of a surgical pen. He usually makes news.

Against him, articulate George looks as if he is still doing a kind of spin. He's so anxious not to be seen as a liberal that he projects a lack of commitment that makes viewers insecure. He shouldn't worry. Being a liberal on political TV right now would be a unique selling proposition. Almost all the other talk shows tilt unapologetically rightwards.

Conservative-leaning cable talk shows get better ratings, but the propaganda from the other side is that it's not because they have more viewers, it's just that they stay tuned longer. CNN viewers watch for an average of about 14 minutes. The typical right-wing talk show fan hangs in there for more than 20 minutes. It seems that CNN viewers watch for news while conservative-talk viewers watch for entertainment. They get their jollies nodding along with potato-faced white guys with an up-yours point of view. (Bill O'Reilly's body slam on the Fox network attracts the largest nightly prime-time audience in cable TV.)

Then there are all the shows that ape CNN's yelling match, "Crossfire," where the hosts function as polarized double acts. There's an epidemic of them now  "Hannity & Colmes," "Kudlow & Cramer," "Buchanan and Press." Leopold and Loeb would probably be talk-show hosts rather than thrill killers if they were around today.

Myself, I have a weakness for the show that's a one-on-one interview  "Larry King Live." I realize it's not chic to be a fan of Larry King. But I am fascinated by his mastery of the lowbrow and I am in awe of his on-air metabolism, which combines iron-butt stamina with a toddler-like short attention span.

I had lunch with him last week in Hollywood. He looks as familiar as the Brooklyn Bridge when he saunters into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel wearing his outsize TV-screen glasses, short leather jacket and gold wrist chain. At 69, he's wonderfully Elvis-era, somehow. There's the contoured hair with the camera-hypnotic widow's peak, the sharp, avian profile, the big-boned, lean-over manner, the red suspenders. Because he never gives his guests a hard time on his show it's easy to underestimate him. But in real life a shrewd intelligence glitters in the birdlike eyes. He's Marilyn Monroe in reverse: The glasses disguise his smarts.

He has held sway at 9 p.m every night for the last 17 years. Once upon a time he was a late-night phone-in radio star. He was no pinup, so only Ted Turner thought he could make it on TV. Early on, ABC tried to steal him for more money. He agreed to defect. But then Turner woke him up on a conference call with his agent at 6 a.m. the morning he was supposed to sign with ABC. "Larry, your agent here tells me you're leaving," said Ted. "I want to hear you say goodbye." King could hear his agent spluttering in the background, but found himself for once tongue-tied. "Say it, Larry," said Turner. "Say, 'GOODBYE, TED.'"

"I couldn't do it," Larry told me. "Loyalty. That's my thing. Plus, no one asked me if I was happy -- and I was."

Politicians like to announce their presidential candidacies on "Larry King" because they aren't going to be ambushed. Ross Perot practically lived on the show when he was running. Instead, Larry peppers guests with everyman questions that defy the danger of Deep Thoughts. His big mantra is "The guest always counts."

"Know why?" he asked me. "I'll be back tomorrow night. The guest won't. At the beginning they wanted me to call my show 'Nightwatch,' 'Nightcap' or some other damn 'Night.' I told 'em I had to be in the title. 'Larry King Live!' They have to say it even when I'm not there."

This is apt because Larry is always on even when he's off. A veteran Hollywood agent stopped by our table and launched into a description of his heart attack. Larry asked him 192 rapid-fire questions and appeared riveted by the answers. This must be a terrible social hazard if you are married to him. He is on a one-man crusade to make every bore interesting. At the time of the Gulf War he was on air every night for 48 straight nights and, he told me, he always asked the same question at the top of the show. "Generals, politicians, experts. Always the same question. It was this," he leaned forward as he does on the show in his signature shirtsleeves and fixed me intently, "Today -- WHAT HAPPENED?"

"That's it?" I asked.

"That's it," he said. "What happened? They know. You don't. You just think you know. A lot of people in television forget that." Larry King and his suspenders are ready for the war. Nobody else is. But that could change in the instant it takes CNN to put its BREAKING NEWS super across the bottom of the screen.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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