LOS ANGELES – Larry King was flying back to Los Angeles after interviewing basketball superstar LeBron James at his home in Akron, Ohio, earlier this month when it hit him.
“I said, ‘I can’t top this,’ “ King recalled in an interview Tuesday. “I’m not getting younger. I want more time with other things. It’s time to go.”
After a quarter century as host of “Larry King Live,” the centerpiece of CNN’s prime-time lineup and a required stamping ground for striving politicians and contrite celebrities, the 76-year-old announced Tuesday that he will be leaving the program this fall.
In a nod to how much the medium has changed since King began broadcasting in 1957, he broke the news himself on Twitter.
“The daily grind is tough,” King said in a phone call moments after his tweet went out. “And there are aspects of it, you know, when you’ve got to do tabloid shows, which is the nature of the business, you’ve got to do the girl that’s missing in Aruba. It’s hard to make the case that that is major news, but that’s what news is today. And my curiosity runs to that, but not nightly.”
King will not be retiring completely: He signed a new contract to host specials on the cable news channel.
But his departure from prime time marks a major turning point for CNN, which has built its schedule around “Larry King Live” for 25 of the network’s 30 years on the air.
“He is the very definition of legend,” said Geneva Overholser, director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg’s School of Journalism. “He has been such a mainstay of CNN’s programming for so long that it’s almost impossible to imagine it without him…. You just expect that whatever happens in the world, we’re all going to get Larry’s take on it. It’s going to be a real dramatic change.”
King logged more than 40,000 sit-downs with newsmakers since his first radio show 53 years ago, according to CNN. The host often referred to himself as an interviewer, not a journalist _ an identification that did little to mollify media detractors who criticized King for being too lenient with his guests.
CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein said that “this isn’t just a big moment for CNN, it’s a big moment for cable television.”
“He created the habit of tuning in to cable at night,” Klein said in an interview. “He made it OK to watch cable. It is a big historic inflection point.”
King’s decision comes as the network has suffered a steep fall-off in the ratings this year and is battling the perception that it has lost its potency. Although “Larry King Live” was the network’s top-rated show for years, the program’s audience declined sharply this year, averaging 723,000, down 40 percent from the same period last year, according to Nielsen. (His ratings were up 10 percent in June compared with May, buoyed by interviews he with James and President Barack Obama, which were promoted as part of his 25th anniversary on the air.)
The diminished viewership prompted speculation that CNN was looking to replace King, but the affable interviewer insisted Tuesday that the network never asked him to step down.
“I swear to God, they never pressured me,” King said, adding that he took the rise and fall of the ratings in stride. “I do believe it’s cyclical. Ten years from today, there will be another young Larry King, John Jones or something, and he’s going to do an interview show, he’s going to take calls, he’s going to be No. 1, and they’ll be saying, ‘What happened to those other shows, where the guys are on soapboxes? Ah, that’s passe.’ “
Klein said the network was open to King continuing in the time slot. “We wanted Larry to decide what he wanted to do,” he said.
It remains unclear who will replace him. British newspapers recently reported that Piers Morgan, a British journalist who judges NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” was about to sign a deal with the network. CBS anchor Katie Couric’s name has been frequently floated as a possible successor, and King himself reiterated Tuesday that he thinks “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest would be the right pick.
“If he knows his politics, I couldn’t think of a better person than him,” King said.
Klein said all those named would make strong contenders to continue King’s legacy of “interesting, challenging, informed, intelligent talk.”
“There are any number of talented people out there,” he said, adding that the network is not in negotiations with Morgan, as has been reported.
The conclusion of “Larry King Live” will add more volatility to CNN’s schedule as it launches a new roundtable show this fall hosted by former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, replacing the newscast anchored by Campbell Brown.
Born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger, King grew up in Brooklyn, then changed his name for his first radio gig in Miami Beach at the request of the station manager. Glancing down at an open newspaper, the young disc jockey plucked the name King from an ad for King’s Wholesale Liquors.
He moved onto the national stage as the host of Mutual Radio’s “The Larry King Show” from 1978 to 1984.
His CNN show debuted in June 1985 with then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo as the first guest. It was first broadcast out of Washington, but during the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, King frequently hosted the show from Los Angeles and then eventually relocated there. Now a resident of Beverly Hills, Calif., he is a regular for breakfast at Nate ‘N Al’s and at Dodgers games.
The broadcaster is known for the dizzying array of topics he tackles as much as his avuncular style and ever-present suspenders. In 1993, Al Gore and Ross Perot debated NAFTA on the program, drawing a record 16.3 million viewers. Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, King Hussein of Jordan and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin came on in 1995 to talk about the Middle East peace process.
But King also has devoted many programs to less weighty fare, such as the death of Anna Nicole Smith and the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba.
One of the joys of ending the show, he said Tuesday, will be leaving behind those stories.
After announcing the news to his viewers Tuesday night, King spent much of the show fielding reaction from newsmakers and colleagues. Nancy Reagan called in to complain in jest that he didn’t “ask my permission,” while Regis Philbin said “I’ll miss your suspenders. I’ll miss your voice. I’ll miss everything.”
“You were the Mickey Mantle of broadcasters,” said in-studio guest Bill Maher.
King said he wants to spend more time with his wife and attending his children’s Little League games, but he also has ambitious plans for his specials. Some initial ideas: hosting a Middle Eastern summit, interviewing all the living U.S. presidents together and touring Barbra Streisand’s home.
“I want to really broaden myself and do other things,” he said.
Still, he hastened to note that his nightly program would continue to air until at least October, noting Elizabeth Edwards is appearing on the show Wednesday.
“There still is a ‘Larry King Live,’ “ he said wistfully, “but it’s sad.”
(Matea Gold reported from New York; Yvonne Villarreal reported from Los Angeles.)