Programming

Mastering the Art of Chat In a Busy News Year

'Piers Morgan Tonight' executive producer Jonathan Wald stays focused on changes to show’s format and the 2012 elections 12/12/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

This week marks one year since Larry King hung up his
suspenders for the final broadcast of Larry King Live and nearly as
long since his successor, Piers Morgan, took over CNN's 9 p.m.
hour. The new host has been tested by an incredibly busy news year, necessitating
changes to his interview program. With the anniversary looming,
Morgan's executive producer Jonathan Wald spoke with B&C staff
writer Andrea Morabito about the show. An edited transcript follows.

Were the decisions to go live more often or add more guests
to the program made by you, Morgan or CNN executives?

Piers and I always ask ourselves what's the best thing we have for tonight.
The decisions about going live with breaking news have been driven by
the most incredible year for breaking news I think any of us can remember.
If you had said to us before we launched, yeah, there's going to be a revolution
in the Middle East, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, earthquake, all the
stuff that's happened, and by the way, Charlie Sheen is going
to have an almost near-total breakdown in public, I don't
think anybody would have believed you. If there was
anything we didn't expect, it was the unexpected. And
I think we have done a good job of reacting to that.

Next year is a big political year, and Piers is
now going to focus solely on his CNN show.
What will your election coverage look like, and
what changes are you considering?


All of the changes we've gone through have been
evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I
think we've been fairly consistent, and the
mix of live and tape has been unexpected
and unpredictable. And I think given
Piers' availability, when you have a
host who's spending 40 days of the year
on [America's Got Talent, which Morgan
will now no longer be a judge for], it's
hard to be consistently live. Piers and
I both agree that there's nothing like live
television and a live interview. On the other
hand, we've had great success doing some
big-name interviews on tape and promoting
them. Going forward what you'll see is a mix
of that, with a bigger emphasis on live interviews.

Who is on your wish list of political interview candidates?

We've been so fortunate; we've had almost every Republican candidate so
far. And I would expect by the New Year we will have had all of them. And
obviously we want to do all of the participants in the presidential election.

So, including President Obama?

Absolutely. And he knows of our intentions.

The New York Times wrote recently that Morgan's November
ratings were lower than Larry King's in the same month last
year. What's your response to the ratings?


The last time I checked, we're up 27% year-to-date in the key demographic
[viewers 25-54] and up 10% in total viewers. So I don't understand
what the quibbling is. I have really no problem with where
we are ratings-wise. I think we've built a great base. And now that we
have Piers full-time, and an election year, I'm bullish on our chances.

Do you think you might eventually have a permanent guest
host? Who might fill that role?

I actually thought Chelsea Handler did such a great job; she'd be ideal,
although the sexual tension and the electricity in the air when she was
on was matched only by Al Roker [on Dec. 5].

Will Piers travel to London for the Olympics this summer?

We're talking about that, nothing has been decided yet.

You're a former Today show producer, and CNN
and CBS are launching new morning shows next
year that are backing off the idea of trying to
copy Today. Is that a good strategy?

I think
that viewers don't respond necessarily to formats, and that anybody who focuses
on just what the format of a show is, is destined to keep thinking about
formats. The real success of the Today
show and any successful television show is the show knows what it is and
there's a sense about it that anything can happen. And that is certainly the
case at the Today show and it always
has been and I think it's baked into the walls there and it's in the
bloodstream of everybody who works on it.

As far
as all the changes going on, I think that's what should happen and that's what
always happens. People change and ratings go up and ratings go down but people
don't tune in for formats, they tune in for people. The heart of it is who's on
TV.

So in that line of
thinking, can you put people like Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski on CBS,
as has been rumored, and have it work just as well as
Morning
Joe?

I think
it's always a combination of people and story selection. You're sort of defined
by the stuff that you talk about, and it's always a challenge to pick the right
stories and I think we've been doing a pretty good job of that and Piers has a
pretty good sense of what works and what doesn't work and the morning is just a
little earlier, that's all.

What do you think
of the TV coverage of the Occupy protests, and if you disagree with how its
been handled, how should it be covered?

I'm
proud to say we were one of the first to devote a significant amount of time to
it. We had Michael Moore on and we were live from down at the Occupy site on
Wall Street. I think it's an interesting story and it's clearly a phenomenon
and we cover it like every other big thing that's happening.

Do you think that
other news outlets were too late jumping on the story?

I don't
know. I don't know whether I would want to judge what other people have done.
We look at what we're doing, and our goal is really to try and add something to
what's already in the mix at CNN. CNN is [so] huge, it really is the biggest
brand in television news and there's very little that doesn't get covered by
CNN, it's an incredible organization. And just as Larry did before us at 9
o'clock, our goal is to add something a little different. There are 23 hours of
news coverage at CNN and ours is the hour that has a little bit of license to
do something special and different. And so we take that very seriously and we
try to add to the stories that are going on or on occasion say, you know what,
we think this is more interesting than that, so let's go do it.

As a producer, does
the Occupy story get harder to cover as the camps disappear and the movement
becomes more of an idea? Is the TV coverage going to increase or decrease?

If
you're asking in terms of overall news organizations covering a story like
that, I think they have a natural lifespan, and when the crowds dwindle, it
makes it harder to cover. But more our purposes, we're not about general
coverage. We are more about finding the personalities, the leaders, the people
behind the movement than just covering-and I don't say "just" in the pejorative
sense-than covering them as a spot news story. We look for the big
personalities and the people driving the biggest stories of the day, whether
it's protests or legislation or we were the first to have Sharon Bialek, Herman
Cain's accuser on. We thought it was an important story and it was one that the
public obviously agreed with because it did very well, it was the highest-rated
show on cable that night in the cable news and information world. So we really
focus on the big personalities and the big drivers of the stories.

E-mail comments to
amorabito@nbmedia.com and follow
her on Twitter: @andreamorabito

November