Sparks fly on King & Perot show

October 01, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Writer

Monday night Larry King did Dallas and got lots of publicity.

In fact, every time Larry King hooks up with on-again-off-again presidential candidate Ross Perot, he generates lots of publicity and water-cooler buzz.

But a question seldom asked when discussing what an important force in American politics CNN's "Larry King Live" show seems to have become is just how many people actually watch the show on a regular basis. There are other questions, too, such as why Perot and King keep getting together and what happens in terms of ratings and politics when they do.

On a regular basis, more people watch nightly reruns of Jessica Fletcher in "Murder She Wrote" on cable channel USA than watch Larry King. More people also watch reruns of documentaries about sharks on the Discovery Channel than watch King. Original made-for-cable movies on USA, like last week's "Sunstroke" with Jane Seymour, generally double King's audience. That's head-to-head in the cable universe.

Compared to over-the-air broadcast networks, about 10 times as many people watch CBS' "Murphy Brown" at 9 o'clock on Monday nights as watch King. In fact, the lowest rated of the 102 prime-time shows for last season, Fox TV's "Charlie Hoover," had almost twice the audience of King.

Locally, not enough people watch "Larry King Live" for it to register in the Nielsen survey of Baltimore viewing habits.

The comparisons offer some perspective on King's audience and his overall importance to American voters and viewers.

But, on the other hand, King's audience is nothing to sneeze at. Furthermore, the combination of King and Perot and what happens when they get together -- as they are expected to do again this week when and if Perot makes a decision to get in or out of the presidential race -- is still a fascinating one.

For the third quarter of 1992 (July, August and September), King has been averaging a 1.8 rating. That translates to 1,099,000 homes.

(Cable ratings are trickier than those for broadcast networks. Instead of each rating point being equal to a set number of households, the value of each rating point in cable is relative to how many households receive that cable channel. The ratings quoted in this story are Nielsen numbers obtained from cable channels.)

But Monday night -- with King & Co. joining the Democrats and Republicans who were in Dallas courting Perot's favor -- the audience more than doubled to a 4.17 rating. Tuesday, even though the talk was of Perot, there was no Perot, and King's ratings dropped back down to a 1.67.

Given the ratings, it's pretty easy to see why Perot has an open invitation to do King whenever he wants.

It's also a great deal for Perot. He gets an hour or more of prime time with an interviewer who is not going to press him too hard, lest Perot take his road show and proven ratings appeal elsewhere. If you've seen any of the shows, you've seen how gently King treads around Perot even when the Texas businessman is making some of his more outrageous statements about conspiracies or doing some of his most awkward tap dancing about whether he's in or out.

As for the viewers, they generally get a pretty good show -- in terms of entertainment. It's live. And, in the end, live is the one great advantage TV has over newspapers and magazines.

Adding to the unpredictability of live TV are the co-stars, King and Perot. They are both loose cannons, only now they are playing with the presidency of the United States.

Tuesday night, for example, King had Democratic and Republican campaign chiefs -- Mickey Kantor and Robert M. Teeter, respectively -- on the show. He was so intent on scoring a show-biz ratings coup that he impulsively told Kantor to forget about the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, agree to the terms for debate set down by President Bush Tuesday and do the debate on the King show.

Kantor calmly explained to a very excited King that such an arrangement would be impossible because King's network, CNN, had already agreed to abide by the commission's ground rules -- as had ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS and every other broadcaster in the universe. King's reaction was essentially -- in the words of the late Gilda Radner's Emily Litella character on "Saturday Night Live": "OK, never mind."

With Perot, anything can happen. He might say he's in, he's out or he's got "evidence" that Ed Rollins was "planted" in his campaign to spy on him. It's a little like watching Shelley Winters talk openly about her love life on the old Johnny Carson show.

There are other factors at play. The press both feeds and feeds off King's ratings and the next-morning buzz when he teams with Perot.

There is no demographic data to suggest that King has an especially upscale audience or one made up predominantly of Washington insiders or opinion-makers. But anyone who reads a morning newspaper knows that one audience King and Perot can always count on to catch their performance is the national press corps -- especially those reporters covering presidential politics.

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