Ian Burrell: Old talk show hosts never retire, they just move to Russian TV - just like Larry King

Media Studies
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The Independent Online

When Larry King announced "it's time to hang up my nightly suspenders" we really shouldn't have believed him. Three years after emotionally leaving CNN he has shocked America by signing up for the Kremlin-backed broadcaster Russia Today (RT).

King stepped down from CNN after the 25th anniversary of Larry King Live and a week in which he interviewed Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Lady Gaga and the basketball star LeBron James. "I can't top this," he said, promising he would spend more time with his kids (the 79-year-old has children of 13 and 14 by his seventh wife).

How desperate must he be to join RT? This is the English-language network that delights in riling Washington by giving a platform to the disparate fringe voices who question the American dream: the angry bloggers, the conspiracy theorists, the dispossessed. It's not what Larry King, or his audience, has been used to.

What a coup for RT! It has landed an American icon, someone who began his landmark CNN show during the Cold War in 1985. The RT version will be called Politics with Larry King, giving the old boy added gravitas.

A trailer begins with a series of single words representing King's supposed qualities, opening with "Reputation", "Intellect" and "Access" and ending with "Suspenders" and "Legend". The chat show host then looks to camera and says: "I would rather ask questions to people of positions of power than speak on their behalf." Given the network's reputation as a mouthpiece for Vladimir Putin's regime, there's an obvious irony in those words and – after 56 years and 50,000 interviews – King will have to prove himself again.

He is already quoting the RT slogan of "Question More", but his reputation is "soft ball Larry", the chat show guy who likes to put his guests at their ease. He got into a row with his successor at CNN, Piers Morgan, who he accused of hogging the limelight. "I used to make the guests the star of the show," said King. The Brit retorted: "The reason we're different is, I'm a journalist and he's not. Larry isn't a journalist, never has been."

In the time since he left CNN, he has been making Larry King Now for the internet TV platform Hulu. Recent guests have included Pierce Brosnan and Billy Ray Cyrus. If Larry is to be regarded as a serious medium in international politics he is going to have to up his game.

His entertainment-based show and his politics programme are both being made by Ora TV, financed by the Mexican telecom billionaire Carlos Slim. Ora will need to demonstrate its independence in tackling such contentious subjects as the Syrian conflict (and Russia's involvement in that crisis).

The signs aren't great. King gave an interview to RT in 2011 in which he spoke of his "good rapport" with the Russian President. "As I said to some friends of mine, Vladimir Putin, if he were American, would be a successful American politician. He has a quality…"

During his career he has shown a great interest in the subjects of UFOs and, on taking the RT job, he said he was looking forward to "providing a platform to those with real alternative visions for our country's future".

You can see the appeal to RT, which has hardly been able to contain its excitement at its new acquisition. "Whether a president or an activist or a rock star was sitting across from him, Larry King never shied away from asking the tough questions, which makes him a terrific fit for our network," commented Margarita Simonyan, RT's editor-in-chief.

I've met Simonyan and she argues passionately for RT's journalism. She was just 25 when she was put in charge of RT's Russian-language 24-hour news service seven years ago. There is a new breed of young Russian journalists who are free of the state propagandist mindset of their Soviet era predecessors, she likes to say. Such freedom is not always obvious in the RT output and Russia remains a perilous place to work for journalists who question the Putin regime.

But for some Americans who are tired of the shallowness and lack of critical voices on many US news networks, RT is offering something different. The Russian outlet will be hoping that Larry King gives it the kind of credibility that Sir David Frost provided to Al Jazeera English, which was once a pariah broadcaster in America. Donald Rumsfeld – who in 2004 described Al Jazeera as "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable" in its coverage of Iraq – laughed with Sir David in a 2011 interview and said of the network: "I am delighted you are doing what you are doing."

I met Sir David last month and he told me that at 74 he had no intention of retiring from a career that still takes him round the globe.

It's no surprise Frost and King find it impossible to relinquish the adrenaline rush of talking one-to-one with those shaping history. Larry will never willingly hang up his suspenders. Let's just hope he's still wearing the trousers.

Blurring the boundaries in a new marketing world

There aren't enough women in the top jobs in British media but Sara Cremer is one of them – and don't expect her to play by old traditions.

She's the new chief executive at Redwood, which styles itself the "world's leading content marketing agency" and makes magazines, video, e-zines and apps for a client list that includes Marks & Spencer, Land Rover and Boots.

Her latest project is a scripted sitcom, which will be shown on the website of an unnamed client, bypassing television and going straight to the public. "It's what I would call branded entertainment," she says. "It's a short comedy that has an information purpose."

Advertising agencies, PR companies, broadcasters and publishers are fighting for this disputed territory where old borders have been obliterated by the internet. There are rich pickings to be had. Cremer is about to launch a film division, Redwood Moving Content, because this is "such an area of growth". In 2010 Redwood made 30 videos for clients – last year it made more than 250. One showed a Mazda 2 car being driven at 90 degrees around a motorcycle Wall of Death. "It got a million hits on YouTube," she says.

Redwood has made films for Barclays to be shown on the popular Mumsnet site, a prime destination for brands. "It's mums talking about why they took out an Isa – not why they took out a Barclays Isa," says Cremer. "You want warmth towards the brand but they have to do something to earn it."

A café for coffee? No, it's where tomorrow's ideas will percolate

If The Guardian fails in its dream of becoming the liberal voice of the entire English speaking world, it can at least go down sipping a decent caffè latte.

Having splashed out on ambitious new operations in the US and Australia, Guardian News & Media, which posted losses of £44.2m last year, last week opened a coffee shop in east London's Shoreditch and gave it the Twitter-inspired name #guardiancoffee.

At first, I assumed this was a rather unimaginative internet parody. But no, Guardianistas soon began retweeting the news. The technology editor, Jemima Kiss, gets to spend each Friday at this "data-driven" café, hanging out with what the paper predicts will be "key players", dropping by for a macchiato. A reviewer from Vice magazine, which has been based in Shoreditch for years, called into #guardiancoffee and described the atmosphere as "sterile and deathly".

A year ago, Rupert Murdoch opened a Wall Street Journal tech café in the same neighbourhood. Only a temporary marketing exercise, it closed three days later. But The Guardian remains defiantly upbeat, claiming the shop's customers will be "the people whose ideas are shaping the future".

Twitter: @iburrell