Mastering the Art of ChatIn a Busy News Year

'Piers Morgan Tonight' executive producer Jonathan Wald stays focused on changes to show’s format and the 2012 elections

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