Piers-ing Commentary

CNN’s bombastic Brit takes on his critics, his ratings and—of course—Fox News

It seems like Piers Morgan has been on CNN for years already, with the amount of attention he has garnered. From massive promotion at launch to early high-profile chats with Oprah and Howard Stern to constant attention to his up-and-down ratings, Larry King’s replacement has been no stranger to the press.

And that’s exactly how he likes it. With his numbers already boosting CNN’s recent performance in the 9 p.m. ET time slot but still trailing his competition, Morgan will use anything he can (care for a Twitter war, anyone?) to draw attention—and viewers—to his show.

But while he often leads with his chin on CNN or NBC’S America’s Got Talent, sitting in his Beverly Hills hotel residence he is more thoughtful and respectful than those who don’t know him may expect. And while he is very up-front about the challenges he has ahead, he is also quick to fire back at the critics who pan everything from his numbers to his neck (seriously).

In a wide-ranging interview with B&C Editor-in-Chief Ben Grossman, Morgan talked about what is working and not working so far, his rivals, and his plans for Rupert Murdoch. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

How’s the show going?

It’s been a roller-coaster ride. Some days you get a run of very serious news, or you’re doing big set pieces with celebs. It’s getting the balance right. We’ve made some experimental calls on guests. I would’ve put good money on the Kardashians rating well, and they didn’t. I think the CNN audience, particularly when there are big news stories going on like the Middle East, they don’t like if you interview people they think are pointless. I think all of us felt a little surprised that was the case.

What’s been the most surprising thing about this experience so far?

The relentlessness, the pace. It reminds me of editing a daily newspaper again, and I didn’t think it would be to that level. I gain more respect for Larry King every day, to have done this at 77 years old.

One newspaper recently called you the face of CNN, along with Eliot Spitzer. Happy with that?

Not sure I agree with it. I would think first Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer. We are the new faces who have come in. Whether you like us or not, the common thread is we are colorful characters and we polarize people in a way that most CNN hosts wouldn’t traditionally. And I think that’s a good thing, I think CNN had to be a little more provocative. When we came in we were getting killed, no doubt about it, by louder more raucous beasts in the jungle.

What do you need to get better at?

Probably interrupting guests. Larry King said that, and I think he’s right. Other than that, the promos said I might be dangerous. What I meant is, I wanted to be unpredictable. What I don’t ever want to do is be boring. It’s a fine line between being challenging and going too far where you piss off your guests so much you don’t get any bookings, and you need to straddle it carefully. A lot of journalists sit back and say I should be harder. But it’s a long game.

Were you too soft on Oprah and Howard Stern, looking back?

No, I’d do exactly the same interviews all over again. And they both rated huge. Then I read some cynical hack saying it was all softballs. Really? What would you have done, gone in and slapped Oprah around the chops? Put a grenade in her dress? It’s ridiculous.

So you read your reviews?

I read them all. I read your stuff, I read everybody’s stuff.

New York magazine said you have no discernable neck. Do you indeed have a neck?

Yes, I have a neck. It’s a little red, it’s a British tan. No-neck Morgan.

I don’t think enough of your personality is coming through on air. Am I wrong?

Probably not yet, I need to develop that side. I’m still a different guy on-screen than the guy you would meet over a drink or two. But at the beginning I just wanted to be solid, tick all the boxes to be accepted as a host, then I can develop my persona on-screen.

So you’re admitting you conformed?

A little bit, yes. I wouldn’t say I went soft, but I certainly think I was more concerned with being a solid performer than doing anything too outrageous. And I’m replacing a guy who was here for a quarter century. So I needed to do a credible job post-Larry, and I think I passed that test. Now the question is, can I excel? That’s what I need to live up to.

Do you need to supply more commentary on your show?

Yes, I would like to develop that more. But I don’t want to be partisan, be categorized as left wing or right wing. I’m an interviewer. I don’t want to move too far away from that into punditry, that’s not why I was brought here.

But you know punditry sells on U.S. airwaves.

In the last five, six years, definitely. But before that, what Larry did sold. I think it reaches a point where everyone is screaming so loudly, and I don’t accept that everyone in America, that’s all they want to watch. I don’t have to become an O’Reilly or Beck from an independent position.

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How do you think your ratings are so far?

I’m a realist. We started with a huge bang, and we are not at that level now. But we are at a reasonably respectable level to build a rising audience. But it’s going to take a lot of work. And it " uctuates so much with the guests right now. I need to get to a position like I did in Britain, where you develop a persona that in the end it doesn’t matter who you are interviewing. And I am six months to a year from that happening here. I’m a new boy, they aren’t sure what to make of me.

Are you disappointed in the numbers?

CNN is very happy. I’m certainly not worried. Everyone compares the numbers to the day we launched. That’s stupid. If they compare them to a year ago, that’s misleading, because the 9 p.m. audience in the last year halved. The accurate comparison is to the previous four to five months, and in that sense we’re doing well. If you compare me to a year ago, it doesn’t look so good, but why would you do that? I’m not dancing on the rooftops about the figures, but I’m not disappointed.

So do headlines that say your ratings are plummeting bother you?

No, because they have plummeted from the 2.2 million that watched Oprah. But if that’s the yardstick, I think people are being silly. But I’m a journalist, it’s what I would have done. No one wants to blow smoke up my backside, they just want to have a negative story, it’s more fun, I used to do that all the time. But those headlines are silly, and everyone in the TV business knows it.

Has CNN expressed any concern over the ratings?

No. Not one murmur. And nor should they.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from CNN?

They’re thrilled. They just tell me not to forget it’s an intelligent audience. And to remain independent. And being independent right now is a really good thing. Being too far right or left right now is a bit dangerous, given what’s going on in the Middle East. What Americans need is facts.

But don’t television ratings say that is not true? Opinion-driven shows like those on Fox News are on fire.

What I think is that Fox News does better programming. Roger Ailes has done a better job producing compelling television. It can’t be dismissed as right-wing loonies. They have identified an audience and go after it with a passion and a fury and a mad partisan opinion, but it works. I was talking to Rupert Murdoch [at the NBA All-Star Game] and we both agreed, I am not going to get those viewers. And I’m not going to try. Or Rachel Maddow’s viewers.

Did Rupert give you any feedback on your show?

Of course not, he’s the enemy. I’m trying to get Rupert on as a guest. I think he’s beginning to think about it. [Last week] I was at him again, I think he might do it.

Your lead-in, Parker/Spitzer, is the subject of a lot of speculation that it won’t last in its current form. [Note: Between this interview and press time, CNN announced that Kathleen Parker is leaving the show, which will be reformatted and renamed In the Arena].

They are up against ferocious competition. It’s MSNBC that now has the problem. Would I like to have Bill O’Reilly’s 2.4 million people as an inheritance? Of course I would. Let’s get real about where Fox’s figures are and have been for quite some time. They have been four or five times as high as CNN’s for quite a while, and obviously [Sean] Hannity benefits from inheriting 2.4 million people every night, and that’s a fact.

I heard someone on Fox Business Channel trashing you recently.

Good. If they’re talking about me, great. I want Fox to trash me every single day, nothing could be better. I love Fox’s aggression. I think CNN should take some of that aggression and fight fire with fire.

Ever met Sean Hannity?

No.

Watch his show?

I watch myself at 9.

This is a pretty nice place. You don’t have a DVR?

I prefer to watch myself. With Hannity and Maddow, I watch any relevant clips that get picked up in the media. You have to understand the enemy. And they are the enemy. It’s not like we’re all bosom buddies, but I respect them all hugely. I’ve got a long way to go before I am in that bracket.

Were you surprised Keith Olbermann left MSNBC?

I was surprised, but nothing he does should surprise us. He’s a passionate, opinionated, theatrical, slightly bonkers, great broadcaster. But it’s very good for CNN he’s not still around.

Did you think he made a good move going to Current TV?

I think he’ll do well. What’s he going to do? He’s not going to come to CNN. He’s too partisan, it wouldn’t work. He can’t go to Fox. So where do you go? Better to go to a start-up and make an impact.

Are you arrogant?

I’m self-confident. I think arrogance is based on chronic insecurity. This is a brutal business, you have to be confident. But I like playing up to a certain cocky persona.

Are you insecure?

I’m not that insecure, but I am very self-critical. I love when people say they don’t watch themselves on TV. It’s complete crap—everyone does.

What’s been the best moment in all of this so far?

It’s been surreal. Having Dustin Hoffman tell me he has watched every show. Having Sir Michael Caine tell me the same thing. Having Oprah going out telling reporters this guy is good. Meeting Warren Beatty, whose suite I’m living in. Matt Damon telling me he was watching my show when Anthony Hopkins praised him. These are pinch-me moments.

That’s all celebrity stuff. Are you a starf---er in disguise?

I’ve always been a little bit of a starf---er. I think everybody is. And any journalist who pretends they’re not, the moment you see them with a star, they are.

Did CNN oversell you from the start?

I think in the world of TV, you've got to make a noise, so people will sample you.  I don't think it's an option not to oversell.

So were you happy with the way you were marketed?

Some of it looking back was a bit cringe-making.  The dangerous thing didn't play out how we thought it would.  I wanted to be unpredictable.  Looking back, to a certain degree, you're almost positioning yourself in a place you can't get to.  What is dangerous?  Some Japanese torture show?  The marketing was to make a lot of noise.  People tuned in, so it was successful, but it may have annoyed some people.

You interviewed Donald Trump in front of a live studio audience.  Did you like the format?

Loved it, I love event television. You're always going to upset someone somewhere when you are experimental, but I would like to end up with a show in front of an audience once a week.  But you have to choose the right guests that can handle it and play with the audience.

You hired Barbara Walters' former booker.  Was that to help ratings?

I talked to her for a month before we hired her.  She wasn't available until recently. Any connection to ratings is ridiculous. 

How much of the booking are you personally doing?

A quarter of the guests at least come from my contacts.  I'm sure it was the same for Larry. The bookers use me when we have a fish nibbling on the hook as well, and I'm happy to do that.

Do you need a Jay Leno-Hugh Grant moment to get your ratings moving?

Yes. I need to get some big gets.  But that's my background, I need to get some scoops.  But everyone needs that.  Unless you are Bill O'Reilly because you have built such a formidable persona that you don't need that.  Letterman and Leno don't really need them.  But I'm the new boy, we're trying.

Feuds -- you seem keen to start some - most of them joking. Do you need them?

I love feuds and celebrities take themselves far too seriously.  And Twitter is fantastic for sparking totally irrational, amusing feuds with other high profile people in the business from Rosie O'Donnell to Howard Stern.  It's just fun.  Half the world is starving, get over it.  Take having fun with Howard Stern. It's smart marketing on my part, doesn't cost a dollar.

You mention Larry King often. When will you stop comparing yourself to him? 

It will take time.  When you follow a legend, it takes time. 

E-mail comments to bgrossman@nbmedia.com and follow him on Twitter: @BCBenGrossman