Ellen Gray: It's showtime: Piers Morgan debuts on CNN tonight

Kathy Bates stars as a patent lawyer in David E. Kelley's "Harry's Law."
Kathy Bates stars as a patent lawyer in David E. Kelley's "Harry's Law."
Posted: January 17, 2011

PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT. 9 nightly, CNN.

PASADENA, Calif. - The man who would replace Larry King might not be planning to go live every night, but he certainly is lively.

In a meeting with the Television Critics Association 11 days ago, Piers Morgan, a 45-year-old former tabloid-newspaper editor best known in this country as a judge on NBC's "America's Got Talent" and winner of "The Celebrity Apprentice," delivered up sound bite after sound bite on everything from his first guest tonight - Oprah Winfrey - to Britain's royal family and why it finally has "buzz" again.

And though it remains to be seen whether the host of CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight" will do for skinny ties what his long-running predecessor did for suspenders - "it wasn't lost on me [that] the Beatles always had skinny ties, and they were quite successful in Britain and America" - the fast-talking Brit does have a few things going for him:

_ An accent that Americans, used to the scolding of everyone from Simon Cowell to "Supernanny" Jo Frost, seem powerless to resist.

_ A certain cheeky charm.

_ A belief in preparation that King, famous for wading into interviews unprepared, seems not to have shared.

The challenges, though, remain. According to the website TVNewser, CNN in 2010 had its worst ratings year in prime time since at least 1996 - ratings for total viewers and adults 25-54 were down 34 percent from 2009 - and its most-watched show,"Larry King Live," with an average 672,000 viewers a night, placed 18th among cable news shows.

What's Morgan going to do about changing that?

"I want to have fun on CNN," he said after the news conference. "That may be the one thing CNN's not had enough of in recent years, is fun. And what you definitely get on Fox [News] and MSNBC in that time slot is a lot of fun. Bill O'Reilly is a laugh.

"There'll be time enough to be serious. If 9/11 happens again, God forbid - God help us - obviously, you go very serious for a long period of time. But in a normal news week, with a normal news agenda, have a bit of fun, a bit of levity."

It won't hurt, he believes, for some of that fun to be prepackaged, starting with tonight's scheduled interview with Winfrey.

"CNN's problem in that slot for a while has not been Larry; it was the fact that they were obsessed with doing live interviews. Because it's very hard to prepromote live interviews. All you can say is so-and-so is coming up.

"What I do with live stories in Britain is take the content, maybe two weeks before or 10 days before, and start releasing a week before promos and leaks on the Internet and Twitter and Facebook and just ramp up the buzz about these interviews. And I genuinely believe that is the way we're going to get bigger ratings is you have to let people know what is coming. You have to give them a little meat on the bone," he said.

More answers from Morgan before he starts asking the questions:

On why he thinks CNN hired him: "In Britain, I do show called "Life Stories." . . . We launched it three years ago, and the ratings have grown from about an 18 percent share to, on three occasions in the last two months, a 36 percent share, 8 million viewers for three of the interviews that I did. And these are huge figures" in Britain, a nation of 61.8 million.

"And they, I think, vindicate my belief that in an era when most talk shows now are having 'bang-bang-bang,' come on for seven minutes, plug your album, movie, whatever it may be. I actually believe there is an appetite there for compelling one-hour interviews with interesting people."

On his "reality" show persona: "Look, we have a thing in Britain called pantomime season, which is where you have these Christmas theatrical performances where there's always a baddie. And when the baddie comes out, everyone boos and whistles. And it's kind of what Simon and me and Gordon Ramsay and others do in America on TV: You play the panto villain. So my character from 'America's Got Talent' is [like that]. It's all a bit of a joke, you know. I think it's quite funny."

On landing Oprah: "I wooed Gayle King," he said, referring to Winfrey's closest friend. "For six weeks. By e-mail. It was literally a love affair."

On how much preparation he does: "Probably too much. Yeah, because of my journalistic background, I like to immerse myself in their world. Oprah, I spent a week just reading and watching every interview she'd done for the last 15 years. So that wherever she goes, I know a) is it fresh, b) where is she likely to show an emotion, be it laughter, anger, whatever it is, horror. I try to get inside their heads, I guess, so I know what's likely to trigger a certain emotion."

On why he'd love to have his predecessor as a guest: "What a life! Forty thousand interviews, eight wives."

On what he's been telling people who ask him about following King: "It must be like the guy who followed Frank Sinatra in Vegas. You know, I feel like that guy - we never heard from him again. And somebody wrote to me last week and went, 'You know who it was?' and I went, 'No,' and he went, 'It was Elvis.' "

'Harry's Law'

David E. Kelley says that NBC's "Harry's Law" (10 tonight, Channel 10), his first network series since "Boston Legal" left the air, is "very much about a class war and the disparity of wealth in this country."

I think it's merely about NBC's current longing to have the kind of success its cable sibling, USA Network, has had with shows that refuse to take themselves too seriously. (And, yes, this effort includes NBC's new comic-book series "The Cape," which moves into its regular time slot at 9 tonight.)

Either of these positions probably reflects more thought than should be expended on "Harry's Law," which stars Oscar winner Kathy Bates as a Harriet Korn, a patent lawyer who, after being fired, finds herself - after a series of increasingly improbable events - practicing law in a former shoe store in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood, along with another corporate-law refugee (Nate Corddry of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip") and a shoe-obsessed assistant (Brittany Snow of "American Dreams").

Can I just say that I love these actors? I share the same hopes for them that I do for Jimmy Smits, who earlier this season starred in NBC's equally improbable "Outlaw" as a Supreme Court justice who quit the high court to fight for the little guy: I want to see them in something a lot better than this, and as soon as possible.

Fans who've stuck with Kelley ("L.A. Law," "Ally McBeal") as his series became more outlandish (and yet repetitive) might enjoy seeing Bates in those inevitable scenes where she sways the court with the power of the writer's convictions. But there's a disconnect between Kelley's whimsy and his rhetoric here that too often leaves the cranky Harriet looking merely foolish.

'Skins,' 'Being Human'

Showtime's "Episodes" is having fun this season with its story of a pair of British writers whose beloved series gets bought by Hollywood and transformed into something new and strange - with Matt LeBlanc as its star - but there's more than one way to screw up a transplanted series.

In the case of "Skins" (10 tonight, MTV), a provocative teen drama whose British original has been shown on BBC America, an apparent assumption that teens in the U.S. and the U.K. are only distinguished by their accents led producers to remake the original with American actors and few other changes. In a series as idiosyncratic as this one - it was developed by a father-son team who called on very young writers to help feed them plot lines with more sex and drugs than most teen shows get away with here - orientation matters. Plopped down in Baltimore, the loose-living adolescents in MTV's seemingly line-for-line version don't actually feel American, no matter what their accents are, and the plots that always struck me as more teen movie than teen reality seem no more realistic than, say, "Gossip Girl."

Casting also matters, and though he's already been supplanted by younger actors in the British version, there's no replacing "Skins" star Nicholas Hoult ("About a Boy") as Tony, the character whom I two years ago described as "the apparently fearless leader of a self-consciously diverse group of young Britons whose idea of a good time involves sex, drugs and the 2008 equivalent of rock 'n' roll."

Newcomer James Newman plays MTV's Tony, a still-cocky but less-charismatic character who calls his girlfriend "Nips" and insists his best friend's virginity is an embarrassment.

There's no predicting what kids will watch these days - have you seen the ratings for ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"? - but if I were the Parents Television Council, which has already declared "Skins" - which premieres tonight after "Jersey Shore" - "the most dangerous show for teens," I'd try to remember what controversy did to help "Shore" grow an audience and instead urge teens to watch it.

Chances are, that'd be all it would take to keep them away.

Also tonight, at 9 p.m.: Syfy unveils the U.S. version of "Being Human," the British series shown here on BBC America in which a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost set up housekeeping together. I liked the original and also like what little I've seen of the remake so far, but won't know until it expands beyond the original stories - as American series generally must do - whether it's worth sticking with.

Send e-mail to graye@phillynews.com.

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