Piers pressure: can he be the new king of chat?

It's crunch-time for the former editor's bid to conquer the US

Stephen Foley
Saturday 15 January 2011 01:00

It was a strange sight, the belligerent former editor of a British tabloid being hugged enthusiastically to the bosom of the New York media elite.

But there he was, Piers Morgan, in the exquisite surroundings of Manhattan's Upper East Side, feted as the next big thing in American television journalism.

With just days to go to the launch of his nightly interview show on CNN, on which the financial fortunes of the news channel are precariously hung, Morgan was toasted at a ritzy party hosted by Tina Brown, the British-born editor of Newsweek magazine and The Daily Beast website, and her husband, Sir Harold Evans, the former editor of The Sunday Times ("of London", as it is called here). Morgan positively beamed. Brown and Evans were proof, he said, "that New York can be taken over by the Brits".

That's certainly the plan, the aim of all the hoopla, as Piers Morgan Tonight goes to air on Monday.

"Ready... Steady... Piers" it says on the massive billboard in Times Square, from which Morgan stares down like Gulliver in Lilliput. CNN is sparing no expense advertising the show, and it can't wait for its new star to sprint out of the blocks. He will be helped by the fanfare over Larry King's retirement – 2.2 million people tuned in for his last show, after 25 years in the slot – and more than a little curiosity.

Reality TV has been good to Morgan in the US. As judge on America's Got Talent since 2006, he has adopted the cruel-but-honest-Brit role made famous this side of the Atlantic by his friend Simon Cowell.

More recently, he scored a blow-out victory on Donald Trump's Celebrity Apprentice, phoning up his showbiz pals and getting them to pay exorbitant prices for cupcakes or Broadway tickets, all in the name of "charidee". In short, he is already on the map here, even if the journalistic credentials that make him an ideal fit for the Larry King slot are less well known than to the folks back home.

The Tina Brown event, like Morgan's other appearances on the party circuit since his arrival in the US, was a getting-to-know-who's-who introduction to the industry's grandees.

The media executive Barry Diller and his wife, the designer Diane von Furstenberg, were in attendance; Arianna Huffington flitted about. Many of the US's most prominent interviewers were also there, from Charlie Rose to Diane Sawyer to Christiane Amanpour. The legendary Barbara Walters gave her seal of approval, predicting huge success.

As if to underscore his arrival among talk show royalty, Morgan turns, for the first installment of his programme, to the Queen of Talk Shows, Oprah Winfrey, from whom he has extracted the confession that she once wolfed down 30 pounds of macaroni and cheese when she was depressed.

The "shock jock" DJ Howard Stern, the former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the actor George Clooney are also in the bag for the first week's line-up.

Morgan has been able to dribble out vignettes from the interviews on a promotional blog, one advantage of his decision to pre-record the encounters – in a break from the Larry King era. It is also perhaps a hint of nerves, as well as a sign of his determination not to stumble. "Doing it live," he told The Independent. "The only thing it means is that it can go wrong."

CNN desperately needs Piers Morgan Tonight to be a hit. Its prime time ratings have collapsed over the past year, as King staggered towards retirement, MSNBC peeled away left-leaning viewers and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News continued to dominate the landscape with the populist punditry of Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck et al. The five most-watched prime time shows are all on Fox; CNN lost 34 per cent of its viewers in 2010.

Morgan is clearly relishing the chance to resume his good-natured feud with Murdoch, his erstwhile boss at the News of the World, who he regularly tweaked during his Mirror days while doing battle against The Sun. "This billboard appears to have gone up directly opposite Rupert Murdoch's NYC office," he wrote on Twitter. "Morning ex boss..."

Murdoch had told him the chances of his appearing on the show were less than zero, Morgan told his launch party this week. In a thick Australian accent, he recounted the mogul's email welcoming him to New York: "I wish you good luck," Murdoch apparently wrote, "but I do not wish you success."

At 45, at a milestone in his extraordinary career and stepping into the shoes of one of the legends of US broadcasting, Morgan's character is recognisably one of the British tabloid. His is an ambivalent belligerence, comedy dressed up as vitriol and vice versa. Then there is the thirst for the juiciest secrets, and the hunger to win. The question is, will all this boisterousness work in America, where the stars are just a little more precious?

In person, Morgan can turn on the charm in a way that might not be obvious from his writing or his performances on America's Got Talent. This was the side that he displayed to the assembled powerbrokers this week, the side that will win him interviews.

There were kind words, back-slapping, mutual book-plugging. And there was self-deprecation, even humility, as he moved among the guests. "I still can't quite believe it is happening," he said.

Larry King was derided as an easy interviewer, a pitcher of the soft ball, but it kept him in big-name interviewees for 25 years.

Morgan's reputation, as Tina Brown pointed out, is as someone who charms his subjects into a confession they may just wish they hadn't made. That will certainly make him a rarity on US television. Will it make him a liability?

"I'm going to be here a long time," he predicted as he sang New York's praises and wrapped up his speech. Maybe it was the warmth and the wine, but at that moment at least, the city's media elite appeared inclined to agree.

America's weakness for the men Britain loves to hate

When it comes to pricking the bubble of sunny optimism that surrounds Hollywood's celebrity class, there are few better tools that a Home Counties accent and a healthy dose of British cynicism.

Just 24 hours before CNN unveils its new star interviewer, another UK export, Ricky Gervais, will attempt to illustrate this fact when he swaggers up to the microphone at the Golden Globes.

Gervais, hosting Sunday's event for the second time, takes a more subversive approach than his saccharine American counterparts. In a recent interview, he promised to use the bully pulpit to poke fun at "weak and feeble" figures from his star-studded audience.

This follows in a great British tradition. Simon Cowell's sneering put-downs turned American Idol into the biggest hit on US television; Russell Brand's hosting gigs at the MTV awards have recently become required viewing.

Morgan will have to tread a fine line, though. Brand sparked a national outcry when he used MTV to call George W Bush a "retarded cowboy". Americans may be fascinated by British cynicism, but that doesn't mean they always like it.

Guy Adams

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