Just two months to go before the broadcast networks start launching their new fall shows. Though most debuts have been scheduled for the week of Sept. 24, The CW unveiled Wednesday unveiled an early-bird schedule. Competitive-cheerleading soap opera Hellcatslaunches on Sept. 8 and girly-assassin Nikita the next night. Nearly all the network's returning series -- America's Top Model, 90210, Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, One Tree Hill and Life Unexpected -- will debut that same week. The other two, Smallville and Supernatural, will roll out during the last week of September.
Veteran broadcaster Larry King, who always said he intended to die at his microphone rather than quit, has decided there's a better way to leave his nightly CNN show than in a pine box. King will retire later this year, he told his audience Tuesday night, ending a daily broadcasting career than began more than 50 years ago in South Florida.
"With this chapter closing I’m looking forward to the future and what my next chapter will bring," the 76-year-old King said at the start of the 9 p.m. CNN show he's hosted for 25 years. "But for now it’s time to hang up my nightly suspenders."
King said he'll continue to produce occasional specials for CNN but wanted "more time for my wife and I to get to the kids’ little league games." That may be so -- his wife Shawn Southwick is recovering from a drug overdose and the couple's recent reconciliation narrowly avoided a divorce that would have been King's eighth -- but it's also true that his ratings have been in a nosedive.
Data released by Nielsen Media Research Tuesday showed King's audience down 36 percent from a year ago. His crumbling numbers are part of a general CNN collapse that had already ended the career of another prime-time host, Campbell Brown, and will surely claim others in the coming weeks as the once-dominant network -- which has dropped into third place among cable news channels during prime-time hours -- tries to halt its decline.
"You always feel bad when there's a ratings decline," King conceded to the Washington Post Tuesday night, but added: "I never felt any pressure. CNN never pressured me."
King was working as a teenage janitor at the long-vanished Miami Beach radio station WAHR in 1957 when a disc jockey failed to show up for a shift and the frantic manager put King on the air. He stayed on the South Florida radio and TV airwaves -- occasionally interrupted by financial scandals and even an arrest for defrauding his boss, financier Louis Wolfson -- for the next 21 years before going national on the Mutual radio network.
On CNN, his style and even his set -- King, his guest and microphone -- varied little from the one he used in his South Florida radio days. "I've always tried to have a conversation with guests, rather than grill them," he said in an interview with the Miami Herald last year. "I want to ask the questions the audience would ask. If I'm interviewing the author of a book, I don't want to have read the book. I want to be in the same boat as the audience."
King estimates he's conducted as many as 50,000 interviews during his career. In recent years, most of them have been with Hollywood celebrities, but in his early days with CNN he often broke political news. In 1993, after King hosted a debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement between Vice President Al Gore and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, popular support for the treaty swung so sharply upward that the program was generally credited with NAFTA's passage.
American soccer now has its greatest opportunity. If those who control this burgeoning game in the U.S. have the good sense and the enlightened self-interest to discipline themselves and to take a decent posture toward soccer, we may yet have a shot at international recognition in a game that, thanks to an accident in sporting history, passed us by.
The only catch: Those lines appeared in Sports Illustrated in March 1967. The two new professional leagues the magazine ballyhooed -- surely you remember the National Professional Soccer League and the United Soccer Association -- were stillborn a month later. Certainly they still loom large in the memories of TV cameramen, who every week had to come up with breathtakingly acute new camera angles to disguise the vast expanse of empty seats at the games. If you're one of the 870 fans who attended the match between the Chicago Spurs and the Los Angeles Toros in Chicago's 61,500-seat Soldier Field in June 1967, bring your ticket stub by the newspaper and I'll buy you an ice-cream cone.
If Sports Illustrated was the first to sample the soccer Kool-Aid, plenty of others have guzzled from the same pitcher over the past four decades. As the joke goes, soccer is America's sport of the future -- and always will be. Read my full op-ed column in Tuesday's Miami Herald.
One of the odd little side effects of the Internet for journalists of a certain age is to see old stories rise up like ghosts on Halloween. As more and more publications put their archives online, stuff I wrote years ago and haven't seen since pops up out of nowhere. The latest example is a piece I wrote in 1993 about how much I hated public radio. Written originally for Washington's City Paper, it eventually appeared in eight or nine alternative papers across the country. (One of the dirty little secrets of alternative journalism is that a lot of editors hate their own readers and delight in running stuff that will offend them.) One of them, the Chicago Reader, recently started putting its archives online, and a reader passed along the link to me.
Some of the details in the story are anachronistic -- I smiled nostalgically to myself at the idea that Congress would regard a $16 billion stimulus package as spendthrift. (If only.) And a sad number of names in it -- from Richard Nixon to Peter Jennings to Ted Kennedy to, heartbreakingly, my sister -- are no longer with us.
But the thrust of the story, I think, remains valid. NPR remains a cultish echo chamber with a tiny audience anchored in a dying medium, funded almost entirely with money extorted from taxpayers. Other than that, public radio is great.
Every few years I make an anthropological visit to my sister's home out west. My sister -- her name is withheld to protect the guilty -- is a lifelong bureaucrat who's never worked for anyone who had to show a profit, and she is deeply suspicious of the whole concept. She'll drive miles across the city to poke through the out-of-copyright videotapes at the public library rather than spend two bucks to rent one at the Blockbuster down the street. She regards any financial transaction between two parties not employed by the government as vaguely shady, if not downright illicit.
Needless to say, she listens to National Public Radio.
Every morning that I stay at her house, I'm awakened at 6 AM by the droning baritone of Bob Edwards, the anchor of Morning Edition. The program stays on until 8:30, when my sister dashes to her car and switches it on there to listen to the final half hour on her way to work. And in the afternoon I usually have to leave the house to avoid being driven to homicide by the discordant tinkling of the All Things Considered theme, which echoes from her radio from 5 PM to 6:30.
Of course, lots of people have favorite news programs. I don't think my father missed more than half-a-dozen telecasts of The Huntley-Brinkley Report in his entire life. But what moves my sister's obsession with NPR from the mildly eccentric to the downright bizarre is that it's her sole source of news. She never watches network television news, and she'll tune in a local program only when she knows it's running a story about one of her bureaucratic projects. She subscribes to a local paper, but only for the arts
This has led to some grave disappointments in my sister's life. She is still perplexed that the ERA didn't make it into the Constitution, since, she told me, NPR reported that the election of Jimmy Carter made it a sure thing. And she was dumbfounded when the Christic Institute's lawsuit, which alleged that the entire national security apparatus of the U.S. government was nothing more than a drug ring, was dismissed by a federal judge before coming to trial. NPR, she said, had made it all sound so reasonable. (The fact that
the suit was filed by an NPR stringer, to my sister's way of thinking, only confirmed its validity.)
Once in a while, I gently hint to my sister that her worldview might be slightly better rounded if she would acknowledge that perhaps Linda Wertheimer is not the final authority on everything under the sun. My suggestions are always met with scorn. "You can get your news from giant corporations if you want to," she snaps. "I'd rather get mine from people who aren't motivated by profit. I'd rather get my news from people who think like me."
For a long time I considered my sister a harmless aberration -- an upscale version of the guys you occasionally read about who think they get secret messages from Elvis through their fillings. But as the years have passed, I've met more and more people who share her fetish for NPR. In fact, NPR itself likes to brag about the cultish devotion of its listeners. The network's 1991 annual report includes letters from a number of hopelessly fixated groupies who regard NPR roughly the same way John Hinckley regarded Jodie Foster.
One listener boasts that he and his wife recently drove from Buckhannon, West Virginia, to Portland, Oregon, and back, listening to NPR every foot of the 6,500 miles. Another, from Randolph, Massachusetts, flatly declares: "If I am informed at all about anything current, it is because I listen to NPR."
With my sister, these listeners share the peculiar belief that they're better informed because they obtain all their information from a single source--that exposing themselves to an alternative would not only not add to their knowledge, but would actually subtract from it. Most NPR listeners, I'm sure, wouldn't trust an economist who bragged that he accepted only the scholarship of Milton Friedman, or a politician who read only the works of Lenin. But somehow they think their own understanding of the world is enhanced by
basing it exclusively on a news organization that labors in an antiquated, one-dimensional medium and whose entire staff wouldn't fill the city room at the New York Times.
This is something of a mystery -- that highly educated, well-to-do people (for that is what NPR's listeners are, mostly) would adopt the kind of intellectual isolationism that we would ordinarily associate with survivalist cults holed up in the Ozarks. Like survivalists, NPR listeners are not exactly numerous--"There are more people falling off the face of the earth than there are listening to NPR," observes Bill McCleneghan, ABC
Radio's vice president for research -- but, like survivalists, their very existence is a troubling enigma. You always have to wonder: Do they know something the rest of us don't?
Recently I decided to get to the bottom of this. I became an undercover NPR listener. To my family and friends, I kept up a facade of normality, reading my regular newspapers and watching television news. But, in the privacy of my bedroom, away from the world's prying eyes, I got up every morning at 6 and listened to all three hours of Morning Edition (the length of the program varies from market to market). And every afternoon at 5 I mixed a stiff drink and settled in for 90 minutes of All Things Considered.
My conclusion: I'd rather be a survivalist. Read the rest of my story in the Chicago Reader.
10 Ways to Kill Bin Laden (8 p.m Tuesday, History Channel) -- What a mistitled show! This documentary tells the stories of 10 U.S. plots -- spanning three, count 'em, three, presidential administrations -- to kill Osama bin Laden. Sorry, there's no surprise ending.
Hung (10 p.m. Sunday, HBO) -- As bleakly funny as it is impossible to describe adequately in a family newspaper, this sitcom about a broke Detroit basketball coach whose only real asset is his equipment heads into a second season. Theme: the ethics of pimping. You still think I was kidding about how hard it is to write about this thing?
Entourage (10:30 p.m Sunday, HBO) -- This sitcom about four homeboys from Queens cheerfully bouncing between triumphs and disasters in Hollywood kicks off a seventh season. Everybody's got a new project, including their irascibly invincible agent Ari (three-time Emmy winner Jeremy Piven), who's decided his next conquest will be pro football. And the NFL thought Michael Vick's pitbulls were its worst nightmare.
The Wall (10 p.m Monday, WPBT-PBS 2) -- After East Germany's communist government built a wall across Berlin in 1961 to keep its citizens from fleeing to the west, many kept trying to cross over (or under) it, often paying with their lives. Others stayed behind to cope with the regime's Stalinist repression until the wall finally fell 28 years later. This documentary tells their stories.
Deadliest Warrior (10 p.m Tuesday, Spike) -- For generations, the world has wondered who would win a smackdown between ruthless warlord Sun Tzu of ancient China and Vlad Tepes, the demented Romanian prince who once repelled a Turkish invasion by impaling 20,000 prisoners with stakes and leaving them out for the Turks to see. Well, OK, maybe it was like six drunken TV executives wondering it over martinis at lunch. Whatever, we get the answer through computerized animation.
Louie (11 p.m Tuesday, FX) -- Love-him-or-hate-him comic Louis C.K., whose last sitcom Lucky Louie was one of the most profound bombs in the history of HBO, gets another shot on FX. This time he's merging his stand-up act and scripted episodes about his cantankerous and messy daily life. That it airs at 11 p.m. gives you some idea of the show's texture.Note: Days and times for PBS shows are for the Miami area, and may differ elsewhere.
Let me program your TiVo! Just click on my best bests for the week at www.tivo.com/guruguide.
Super Bowl? We can take it or leave it. Olympics? Don't watch 'em so much. Soccer? Now you're talking. When the World Cup is on, South Florida turns on the TV.
No television market in the United States is watching World Cup matches more fervidly than South Florida. Both English-language ESPN and Spanish-language Univisión say Miami and Fort Lauderdale lead all cities in ratings for TV viewership.
That's a marked contrast to ratings for February's Super Bowl on CBS (in which South Florida finished 49th out of the biggest 55 markets) or the Winter Olympics on NBC (most nights, South Florida was dead last). Read the full story Barry Jackson and I wrote on World Cup ratings in Saturday's Miami Herald.