Tuned In

Piers Morgan May Have Talent, But Is He Right for CNN?

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Reports are busily popping about that CNN is on the verge of hiring Piers Morgan as the next host of its 9 p.m. primetime show, replacing Larry King, who is stepping down in the fall. We Yanks may be most familiar with Morgan as a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent (the network apparently cleared him to do the CNN deal, but he’d stay on the NBC show too), but he was previously known in Britain as a journalist (TV and print) and interviewer, so the choice is not as much of a stretch as it might appear.

I haven’t seen Morgan’s British work first-hand, so I can’t judge his fittingness as a TV journalist; either he’ll work out or he won’t. My concerns for now are not so much whether CNN is picking the right host, but whether it’s picking the right show.

Fans of Morgan’s TV work in Britain have described his work as analogous to David Frost’s—which, while Americans associate Frost with his legendary Nixon interviews, does not actually mean a hard-hitting political takedown show so much as it describes a mix of political and lighter celebrity interviews.

In other words, Larry King Live UK—or, at least, a different version, with a different host’s sensibility, of essentially what CNN has on at 9 p.m. now. Which raises the question: assuming CNN has a problem at 9 p.m. (and at least ratings-wise it does), is the problem King, or his show’s format?

It think it’s at least partly the latter. The notion of a nightly interview show, shifting from hard news to celeb sagas, seems like something of a cable-news throwback, and not just because of King’s age. It seems dissonant, both in the larger world of cable news and with CNN’s brand (to the extent that it still has one). Fox and MSNBC—and CNN on an on-again-off-again basis—have powered their schedules with hosts projecting strong points of view. And to the extent that CNN is branding itself as the just-the-facts alternative to those other two, I wonder if a Piers Morgan show, just as LKL did, will seem like a jarring break from its harder news coverage, especially if Morgan continues King’s pattern of celebrity news- and funeral-chasing.

But is CNN branding itself as the just-the-facts alternative now? What is it aiming at? I can’t entirely figure it out. We’re now looking at a primetime lineup of a Crossfire-style show with Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker, switching to (I’m guessing) and long-format sitdown potpourri with Morgan, switching thence to Anderson Cooper’s globetrotting journalism at 10. Is there a brand there? I have a hard time seeing it, unless it’s: The Little Something for Everyone Network. And I’m not sure who wants that, exactly.

Of course, the success of this still-hypothetical show will depend a lot on Morgan’s ability and how he directs its focus. Let’s hope he’s got talent.