Why CNN may have pulled the plug on Piers Morgan

The British presenter was always going to be a tough sell in America, as ratings reflected

Everyone knew his daily chat show on the US television network CNN wasn’t working. You would be hard pressed even to argue that he has had a good run.

Tellingly, Piers Morgan, 48, who replaced the iconic Larry King just over three years ago in the same slot, isn’t pretending otherwise. Revealing late on Sunday to The New York Times media writer David Carr that his programme, Piers Morgan Live, would shut down shortly, probably sometime in March, he commented candidly: “It’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings.”

The question is why. It was counter-intuitive for CNN to hire a Brit to plumb whatever is moving America on any particular night. Yet in him they had found a rare thing of a news man – he edited The Mirror for nine years – who after hosting various talent shows also entirely got the more tabloid side of broadcasting.

Arguably, Morgan did himself in over a year ago using his show relentlessly to hammer the supporters of gun rights in America, particularly the National Rifle Association (NRA), in the wake of the Newtown school massacre in Connecticut that killed 27 people, including 20 small children. On one occasion he called the head of Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt, “dangerous”, “stupid” and an “idiot”.

His brashness on the topic provoked sufficient anger that a petition was sent to the White House, signed by 109,000 people, demanding that he be shipped back to London as punishment for attacking the Second Amendment to the Constitution. It was sufficient to prompt a reply from spokesman Jay Carney, who suggested that the plaintiffs also pay attention to the First Amendment protecting free speech.

 

The gun controversy encapsulated a problem that was there from the outset. Even if his own ratings had trailed off badly at the end, over a reign of 25 years King had commanded an audience that spanned all of America. Morgan seemed caught between different constituencies – the generally conservative Middle America and the more liberal independent republics of New York City and Los Angeles.

It turned out to be a balancing act for him and he got it wrong. CNN built fancy studios for Morgan in New York and Los Angeles. Everything in between are called the “flyover states” for a reason and perhaps Morgan should have thought to stop by them from time to time and not just for presidential debates. He might have learnt something about the whole America to which he was meant to be broadcasting. He surely knows this now. “Look, I am a British guy debating American cultural issues, including guns, which has been very polarising, and there is no doubt that there are many in the audience who are tired of me banging on about it,” he admitted to Mr Carr. By last week, his show was being watched by just 270,000 viewers and only 50,000 in the age group advertisers care about, from 25 to 54-years old.

This was hardly sustainable for CNN and its president Jeffrey Zucker. The competing programmes on Fox News and MSNBC took in two million and 900,000 respectively over the same period. Morgan has been sinking all of CNN’s ships during primetime and he clearly had to go. That said, Morgan said he is discussing other duties for CNN, like important interviews and breaking-news coverage.

“Jeff and I have been talking for some time about different ways of using me,” he said.

There was also something else – the phone-hacking cloud that had attached itself to Morgan dating back to his command of The Mirror. He has denied all knowledge of the practice but this month revealed he had (willingly) submitted to questioning by police in London last December. CNN has said the shuttering of his gig has nothing to do with the investigation.

If there is bitterness, it isn’t showing. His contract with the network runs until September, after all. But if Morgan ever writes a sequel to his already published memoir, he might muse on why CNN failed him too. Here is a network that is  bland compared with the opinionated ravings that are encouraged at MSNBC and Fox. Ravings get ratings and Morgan attempted a bit of it himself and got run over. One day he will reveal whether his producers in fact encouraged him to jump off the deep end on guns.

Ultimately, Morgan may have misfired because of that tricky matter of tone. Any expat Brit in America, let alone a chat show host, knows the narrowness of the territory that separates caustic British wit from tiresome British obnoxiousness.

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