Jonathan Storm: Confident newcomer

The Brit replacing Larry King thinks he can give CNN a boost.

Posted: January 17, 2011

PASADENA, Calif. - Save the whole network? Maybe not. But Britisher Piers Morgan says he's "absolutely confident" he can reverse a chunk of CNN's prime-time ratings free fall, as he takes over the Larry King throne Monday at 9 p.m. with his show, Piers Morgan Tonight.

"There's no doubt that CNN in the last two or three years . . . has had their butts kicked by Fox News and MSNBC in prime time," he told me recently at the Television Critics Association Press Tour. "I admire and respect the broadcasters and the rivals. But I would like to get to a position quite quickly where the butt-kicking is reversed a bit."

Morgan's first interview is Oprah Winfrey, who has been everywhere promoting her new TV network. The lineup for the rest of the week: Howard Stern, Condoleezza Rice, George Clooney, and Ricky Gervais.

Morgan, 45, admitted he was a "cocky little devil," but said that persona will help interest viewers and elicit powerful interviews.

"I love being polarizing. I think it's more fun," he said. "The idea of being some saintly figure in modern television must be unbearable. . . . I think television should be provocative and opinionated."

Morgan, best known in the United States as a judge on America's Got Talent and winner of one installment of The Celebrity Apprentice, was editor in chief of the British tabloid News of the World and then the Daily Mirror for 10 years, ending in 2004, and has wide experience on British TV. He told critics that his Life Stories interview show has doubled its viewer share in three years, one reason CNN hired him to replace King.

I asked Jonathan Wald, the show's executive producer, why CNN didn't hire an American. "The best man got the job," he said cryptically.

Morgan said one reason King and company foundered was "that they were obsessed with doing live interviews, because it's very hard to pre-promote live interviews. . . . CNN [has] to do more. We have to make more noise. You know, we're up against new beasts in the jungle. Fox News didn't exist six, seven years ago."

Actually, it launched more than 14 years ago, but Morgan gave the impression he was more interested in sizzle than facts.

"To perform in that jungle now, you have got to be more aggressive. You've got to be louder, and you've got to make more noise."

Wald later told me there could be a problem with all that shouting, since the network is still committed to doing lots of live interviews, or at least ones pegged to very recent news. Promoting them well in advance will be difficult, unlike promoting chats with shock jocks and dreamboats.

However it shakes out, Morgan seems more primed for a ratings rumble than his predecessor.

"You talked about being opinionated and coming up against Fox News, and so on," one critic commented. "So when Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck start coming after you, are you saying that you are the wrong CNN guy to tangle with?"

"Yeah," the new chat show host responded. "Bring it on, big boys."


Jonathan Storm:

Television

Piers Morgan Tonight

9 p.m. Monday on CNN


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ jonathanstorm.

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