Tuned In

Piers Morgan's "O"-Level: A Cheeky, Odd Introduction

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Oprah Winfrey was a puzzling, or maybe perfect, choice of first guest for Piers Morgan Tonight. There is probably nothing more you want to know about Oprah. Or, sure, there is—but nothing that she’s going to tell you. But she was an attention-getting big “get” (even if she’s been speaking everywhere since the launch of OWN), and offered Morgan the chance of reflected glory. (If you’ve been within 500 feet of a TV carrying CNN, you’ve seen the ads excerpting Winfrey’s flattery of Morgan’s interviewing style.) Relieved of the expectation that he would prize anything earth-shattering from her, Morgan could use the interview to tell America something about himself.

Which was? As an interviewer, Morgan was cheeky, flirtatious, flattering and playful, sometimes dryly teasing, sometimes fawning, occasionally cleverly probing. As a host? The first night of PMT didn’t give us much to go on.

Morgan, a canny self-promoter, has spent the last weeks tirelessly building himself up in his introduction to the U.S. (Well, re-introduction; America knows him as the host of America’s Got Talent and Omarosa’s nemesis on Celebrity Apprentice, but not as a journalist.) In interviews and promos, he’s sold himself as a kind of a journalistic wrestling villain, an arrogant, abrasive, love-him-or-hate-him British bad boy.

This is probably cannily strategic. As a news host, Morgan has to go from zero to 60 with the cable-news audience, and if he’s going to put himself on a footing with the Oprahs of the world immediately, it behooves him to become a character—to exaggerate his size, like a desert lizard inflating its frills.

And if Morgan knows the media, he knows that he’s going to get cast as a British caricature anyway. So he might as well choose the caricature. Better he be typed as a Simon Cowell-esque nasty rogue—the kind of rude headmaster America still falls for—than an oily poseur. (Whereas Cowell looks right off the bat like an alpha villain, Morgan, with his soft features and impish manner, can seem to the American eye like the character in a war movie who turns out to be selling secrets to the enemy.)

But the most odd choice that the first PMT made was to have almost nothing that involved Morgan making any kind of direct connection with, or even acknowledgment of, the home audience. Except for a short taped bit on his reasons for choosing Oprah, the hour jumped straight in to the interview. Whether this was an idiosyncrasy of this particular big interview or the deliberate format choice of PMT, it meant that the questions “Who is this guy and why would I want to watch him every night?” would have to be answered by the interview itself.

Winfrey unsurprisingly stayed in control of her answers and made no secret—whether she was discussing OWN or Gayle King and Stedman Graham—that she would answer the questions as she wanted to hear them, rather than as asked. But Morgan conveyed the sense that he was a peer, pleasantly sparring with Winfrey, goading her into a bet as to who would land Michael Vick first, and managing questions that seemed to throw her and make her think (“How many times have you properly been in love?”).

Even if Winfrey was controlled in her answers, she acted repeatedly impressed with the questions—”You’re good. You are good“—which at times seemed to be the main promotional goal of the interview. (Advice to future Morgan interviewees: if you want to evade a question, tell him how brilliant and incisive it was, and then move on.)

Some of Morgan’s best moments came in his flirty, sparring banter. When Winfrey bridled (lightly) at the idea that she had used a “stunt” on her Australia trip, Morgan dryly demurred, smiling, “Of course not. I mean, perish the thought.” When Winfrey deflected a question about how much money she had, Morgan asserted, “I bet you know exactly how much you’re worth,” a statement that seemed less aimed at eliciting an answer than sending a message—I’ve got you figured out, you and I both know how these things work—and thus showing the home audience his savvy and worldliness, not a bad goal for a first night.

And he even worked in a joke about cricket! ‘Allo, gov’nor! Let it not be said the man does not own his Britishness.

The hour had its oddities. The camera work was peculiar; there seemed almost as many tight shots of Morgan as of Winfrey, and the perspective kept returning to a looming view from alongside a potted plant, as though the camera were hidden inside a tissue box on a side table. And as if spurred by Winfrey’s Barbara Walters appearance last month, the interview kept returning to the question of whether Morgan could make her cry, so that, when it inevitably built to her eyes reddening (when thinking of how proud Martin Luther King would have been to see a black woman run a TV network), I half-expected Morgan to call in a referee to certify that he had officially achieved tears his first night. Victory!

I’m still not entirely sure how PMT will fit into the flow (if there is one) of CNN’s primetime, between the politics hour of Parker-Spitzer and the hard news of Anderson Cooper. And I wonder if a show that relies heavily on long, pre-taped interviews will sacrifice the immediacy and host-audience connection you get from a live, or same-day-taped, interview show. (Which is the thing that makes a viewer decide they’re going to “watch Piers Morgan,” rather than tune in to watch the person that Piers Morgan is interviewing that night.)

But if CNN is going to try something different in primetime than the personality- and opinion-driven flagship shows on Fox and MSNBC, at least they’re doing it with someone who approaches the job with relish, and understands that it’s better to be disliked than to be ignored. When Morgan’s first week of interviews is over—Howard Stern is up tonight, and prescient booking Ricky Gervais Thursday—his challenge will to make sure he can keep not just his guests but the rest of us talking.