Programming

Piers-ing Commentary

CNN’s bombastic Brit takes on his critics, his ratings and—of course—Fox News 2/28/2011 12:01:00 AM Eastern

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.

Chart.jpg

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

March