Piers Morgan expects his upcoming CNN program to be number one in the 9 p.m. time slot.
"I didn't join the network to come in second or third or fourth," Morgan said during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday (Sept. 8). "I want to be first."
But Morgan's predecessor, Larry King, has fallen to third in the time slot among cable news competitors behind MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and perennial leader Sean Hannity on Fox News. Year-to-date, Hannity is averaging 2.2 million viewers followed by Maddow with 931,000 and Larry King Live with 702,000. At times, King has also fallen below Joy Behar's show on smaller, sister network HLN.
CNN/U.S. president Jon Klein has a lot riding on Morgan as well as his other new primetime hour, an 8 p.m. topical discussion show co-hosted by conservative columnist Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York who resigned in 2008 amid a prostitution scandal. Parker/Spitzer bows Oct. 8.
"We've got a lineup of fearless, aggressive journalists who ask tough questions and hold people accountable," added Klein. "I think it's a tough lineup to beat, one that you can't find elsewhere in primetime and cable news."
Morgan's still untitled program will bow in January. Larry King will host his final show Dec. 16. Reruns of Larry King Live will fill the 9 p.m. hour until Morgan bows after the first of the year.
U.S. audiences primarily know Morgan as the acerbic British judge on NBC's America's Got Talent. And Morgan is banking that his profile on Talent will help propel his success on CNN.
He also hosts an interview show in his native Britain called Piers Morgan's Life Stories. Famously, Morgan made former Prime Minister Gordon Brown cry during an interview last February. Brown broke down while talking about the death of his daughter Jennifer and his terror that his son Fraser, who has cystic fibrosis, might not survive to adulthood.
With his CNN program, Morgan will have his hands full. He'll continue to host Life Stories. He's still negotiating to return to Britain's Got Talent, the original, U.K. version of NBC's America's Got Talent. And, per his contract with NBC, his duties on Talent will take precedence over his CNN gig. Talent, which is a summer hit for NBC, is in production in Los Angeles about five months out of the year. That means that Morgan's CNN program will be taped during a preponderance of Talent's production schedule. Morgan's CNN show will be based in New York. But it will also shoot in Los Angeles and London. CNN has yet to settle on a permanent fill-in host for Morgan when his other duties preclude him from hosting. Also still being discussed is the format of the show, whether it will be shot in front of a studio audience similar to Life Stories and have a regular call-in component similar to Larry King Live.
Morgan said that he will not strive to emulate the opinionated hosts he'll be competing against on Fox News and MSNBC. And he declined to disclose where he falls on the political spectrum.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "Why should it matter?"
"I'm much more concerned with keeping CNN's mission of being objective and seeking the truth. I have an opinion. But I'm not going to shove it down people's throats. There's enough of that on other shows," he said, adding that he finds such an approach "self-indulgent."
Morgan's journalism bona fides have been a thread of discussion since his name surfaced last summer as a possible replacement for King. Much of his experience has been in the British tabloid press including stints at News of the World, the infamous Rupert Murdoch-owned scandal sheet, and The Daily Mirror. His tenure at The Mirror was particularly rocky and ended with his sacking in 2004 for running what turned out to be doctored photos purporting to show British army soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.
Morgan took issue with the imprecation that he is not particularly well known among U.S. audiences for his journalism chops.
"You can't call me a non-journalist! I was a journalist in Britain for 25 years," he said. "I take my journalist pedigree very seriously."
Additional reporting by Andrea Morabito