For a man who uses Twitter to broadcast his every thought, deed, and minor foray into the public eye, Piers Morgan has been surprisingly slow to update followers about the smattering of fresh headlines that pertain to the performance of his nightly talk show on the rolling news channel CNN.
Figures released by the ratings agency Nielsen, and eagerly flagged by the US press corps yesterday, have given his detractors ammunition. They suggest that the former British tabloid editor’s reign as an American anchorman is leaving locals as cold as his occasional references to an organisation called Arsenal which plays a foreign sport known as “soccer.”
On Friday, Piers Morgan Tonight drew just 265,000 pairs of eyeballs to his 9pm slot, a new all-time low that was roughly a quarter of the figure achieved by rival Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. On Fox News, Sean Hannity was eating them both for breakfast, attracting a loyal army of 1.4 million viewers.
On Tuesday, his one-hour programme hit another record low, with just 77,000 people tuning in from the 25-54 demographic considered most attractive to advertisers. The Drudge Report, an influential news aggregation website summed up that performance in three letters: “SOS”.
Of course, statistics can mislead, especially when taken in isolation. Last night, Morgan called The Independent to point out that his Friday ratings were affected by both the Easter holiday, and the fact that his show was a re-run of an old interview with Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.
Average viewership over the entire three months he’s been on the air is a more respectable 856,000, an increase of around 30 per cent over his octogenarian predecessor, Larry King. And his audience’s average age is creeping downwards.
Recent criticism “lacks perspective,” he continued, and is partly the result of jingoistic US commentators put out at a British “imposter” taking over one of CNN’s most prestigious slots. “This is a long-term game, and CNN looks at the big picture,” said Morgan. “Larry King lost half of his audience last year, and nearly as much the year before. The fact that we are now taking numbers up at all is a major success. And I’ve always said: judge me by how we settle down in between six months to a year.”
Morgan’s stock has certainly had ups and downs. After a buoyant start, which saw his heavily-advertised January debut reach 2.2 million, recent weeks have been underwhelming. Four of his last six outings pulled fewer than 500,000 viewers, and he’s broken a million just once in the past month.
“Piers Morgan clearly has no base,” says Robert Thompson, professor of Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Some nights he does OK, but on others he’s in fourth place. That suggests people are watching his show for guests and not for him, and that’s a problem.
“I don’t think CNN will get rid of him – they don’t exactly have a deep bench in terms of potential replacements – but they need the figures to improve.”
Among critics, knives have been sharpened ever since Morgan’s debut in January, when a nationwide advertising campaign touted the “fearless” interviewing technique that supposedly justified his reputed $6m CNN salary.
Early write-ups branded Morgan’s treatment of Oprah Winfrey, his first guest, as obsequious – though tete-a-tetes with Howard Stern and Ricky Gervais were better-received. His studio manner occasionally recalled Alan Partridge. He once asked former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: “If I was going to woo you, how would I do that?”
The New York Times devoted a stern op-ed to his treatment of Charlie Sheen last month when, after asking if the troubled actor had ever hit a woman (and being met with a negative response), Morgan failed to raise Sheen’s conviction for spousal abuse last year.
Vanity Fair, for its part, recently carried an opinion piece devoted to Morgan’s “suffocating smugness”. It asked: “How did we get stuck with Piers Morgan? Who is he, why is he here, is he returnable?”
The answer to the latter question may come after this week, when Morgan is in London fronting CNN’s royal wedding coverage. “CNN will use this wedding to introduce Piers Morgan to people who otherwise don’t see him,” reckons Thompson. “That could help. After all, they wouldn’t need to get many new viewers to double his ratings.”