By DAVID BAUDER
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — After replacing Larry King last January, it took only 11 days for Piers Morgan’s vision of his show to collide with reality.
He was on a plane to Los Angeles with producer Jonathan Wald and as soon as they landed, both cell phones were buzzing with news of political upheaval in Egypt. Wald turned to Morgan and said, “You know, we were wondering when we were first going to go live. Tonight’s the night.”
So began an eventful year that saw Morgan revise the format of his prime-time show on the fly to emphasize more live interviews, sweat while waiting for Charlie Sheen to arrive for a live show, quit “America’s Got Talent” and see his reputation dragged into a phone hacking scandal by journalists in his native Britain.
Through it all, he survived. Morgan may not have lived up to his initial brash boasts about burying the competition, but he didn’t fail, either. “Piers Morgan Tonight” viewership was up 9 percent over King’s final year, even more among youthful viewers. He marks his first anniversary this week with appearances by Chelsea Handler, Rosie O’Donnell and former President Jimmy Carter.
“It isn’t as successful as I’d like it to be,” he said in a recent interview. “I’d like to get the ratings significantly higher, and we believe there is a real opportunity this year to put the foot on the gas. But am I pleased with where we ended up after the first year? Yeah, actually, I am. It would be pretty churlish to be overly critical given that we’ve taken the ratings up.”
Morgan’s biggest threat came from his past. Before becoming a U.S. television personality, he edited two British tabloids, including Rupert Murdoch’s shuttered News of the World, and was involved in questionable practices such as paying bribes to people at rival newspapers. Morgan insisted he never hacked into celebrity phones, ordered anyone to do so or knowingly ran a story based on hacking. No one proved otherwise in a government inquiry that included tense Morgan testimony by video-link in December.
Watch Mark Wahlberg on a Recent Episode of “Piers Morgan Tonight”:
Morgan called the inquiry annoying, less a distraction than “a visitation from the ghost of Christmas past.”
“It made me laugh when people said CNN had no idea about my tabloid past,” he said. “Of course, they did. The bottom line is, they asked me, `Is this going to be a problem?’ and I said no. I said what it will be is a bit of a circus because there are plenty of people back in Britain who would love to drag me into stuff like this, and that’s what they’ve tried to do.”
Ken Jautz, executive vice president in charge of CNN U.S., said Morgan and his past were vetted by CNN before he was hired. He would not discuss the specifics of that effort, but noted that “in Piers’ case, he has a longstanding and substantial public profile.”
CNN believes Morgan has had a strong first year, and that despite his mention in the British tabloid stories his viewership has been growing in the United States, Jautz said.
Morgan figured CNN sought him out because of his celebrity interview program in Britain and planned to model his U.S. show largely on that, with the majority of his show being pre-taped chats with stars.
“I always think if you’ve been recruited based on a particular thing that you’re doing, you tinker with that at your own peril,” he said. “Anchoring a live news program wasn’t something I’d done before. I wasn’t sure I’d be good at it.”
The Arab Spring, the devastating tsunami in Japan, deadly tornadoes and Osama bin Laden’s killing all forced him to find out fast. The percentage of live vs. taped shows turned out the opposite of what he anticipated, and Morgan believes the show is better for it. It reached the point where one taped guest, Rod Stewart, had his show postponed so many times he sent Morgan a birthday gift with the message, “When are you going to air my (expletive) interview?”
Morgan considers his interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his most pivotal of the year because it put the former tabloid editor and talent show judge in a news context.
The ability to adjust on the fly is important, Jautz said. “The strongest hosts are the ones that have the skill sets and the willingness to be flexible,” he said.
Kim Bondy, a former CNN producer who now teaches journalism at the University of New Orleans, said the jury is still out on whether Morgan’s show will be a long-term success, and a lot is dependent on the shows around him.
But she said he has an engaging interview style. “He’s got an ease to him,” she said.
Morgan came into his job full of bluster, promising a “butt-kicking” to his rivals, bragging about making Simon Cowell cry in an interview and trying to start a feud with Madonna. It was, to a large degree, an act. Inside he had his doubts about whether American viewers would embrace his style.
“The enemy to me, I thought, was apathy,” he said. “If people were going to be apathetic, I was dead in the water.”
A year on the job has honed interviewing skills. “I try to be empathetic but I also try to be very direct,” he said.
His most memorable celebrity interview was the live hour with Sheen during the madness that enveloped the actor after he was fired from “Two and a Half Men.” The interview was booked, even as Morgan questioned Sheen’s reliability. Five minutes before airtime, with Morgan in the studio sweating, Sheen arrived with his entourage. He left Morgan with a copy of one of his drug tests with the note: “To Piers, let’s get hammered!”
He’s learned to be more selective with celebrity interviews, noting the ratings suffer unless they are big stars, legends or the occasional up-and-comer such as Bruno Mars. He also stayed away from Casey Anthony, figuring the short-term ratings bump he would receive from talking to the mother found not guilty of killing her daughter wouldn’t be worth the damage to the show’s reputation.
Wald, Morgan’s producer, said he’s hoping the show has fewer wild swings in content from night to night, shorter interviews and a greater chance for Morgan to show his personality.
An especially busy news day was key to Morgan’s decision to leave NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” (Howard Stern is his replacement.) On that particular day, he spent an afternoon in Los Angeles judging contestants for the talent show competition, went to the roof of a building where CNN had specially set up a location for him to anchor a live show on the tsunami in Japan, and then went downstairs for another three hours of talent judging.
“Fun though that was, I knew this year would be busy,” he said. “Do I really want to be in Florida on Super Tuesday judging dancing Christmas trees? That’s the question, and the reality is I don’t.”
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