Larry King – Talk Legend or Obsolete Dinosaur?

by Victor Cheng

Larry King is “retiring” – which is code for he has been forced to retire.

The legend of talk television has suffered several years of bad ratings and the powers that be have decided that it’s time for him to hang up his hat.

The big debate amongst media pundits is 1) who will replace him at CNN, and 2) should CNN even bother to replace him.

I mention this story because it is precisely this kind of dilemma that many business owners face.

Here is the gist of the problem.

Larry King’s unbiased, politically neutral, approach to interviewing guests during prime time just does not attract viewership and ratings. And in the media business, no ratings = no revenues.

What’s useful to keep in mind is that Larry King himself has not changed that much. He’s still sharp, witty, charming, etc..

What has changed is the viewing audience.

If you look at prime time talk show ratings, what “sells” are talk shows led by hosts that are extremely liberal or extremely conservative.

Now you could argue that CNN’s core expertise of neutral reporting is better for the American public that say Fox’s right wing slant or MSNBC’s left wing slant.

But the ratings show, viewers during prime time don’t want neutral politics. They want heavily biased politics. It is what the market wants.

As a ceo coach, I constantly reinforce the following message to my clients:

“Your opinion is interesting but not relevant.”

Trust me this is not what many successful, highly accomplished entrepreneurs want to hear from their executive coach.

The only opinion that matters is the opinion of the customer. And in the media business, there are two “customers” – viewers and advertisers.

All else being equal, advertisers only want to advertise on shows with viewers. Prime time viewers just don’t want to watch Larry King (and presumably anyone like him).

The problem is CNN doesn’t know how to be wildly biased to the left or right. They’ve been doing neutral reporting for decades. They are extremely good at it. But it no longer sells.

So what should CNN do in this case?

This is not an easy question to answer.

The short answer is they need to change from their current strategy. It’s very clear its not working.

The wrong answer is to stay the course and watch ratings slide even further.

From a practical standpoint, since CNN is not good at highly partisan programming, they should start small and experiment with a variety of approaches to figure out what’s going to work.

I call this “cracking the code” in the marketplace – the act of finding the right combination of customer and offering that really just clicks.

If it were me, I would have launched several efforts at more partisan programming in low viewership time slots — a place to experiment, take some risks, and find a model that works.

It would have been to have started this process a few years ago. Now the whole world is watching and CNN doesn’t have a proven winner (even in lower profile time slot) to field in Larrry King’s place.

CNN has some catching up to do.

In your business, you need to be brutally honest with yourself. Are you selling something that your customers fundamentally no longer want to buy?

If you are, you’d better stop and find something else to sell instead.

Thriving in a recession is matter of a few simple principles (in this case, sell what customers want to buy). Yet many business owners let pride, ego, security, and fear get in the way of making the tough call.

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