Piers Morgan confident he can lift CNN's flagging prime-time ratings

By RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com, filed January 16, 2011

Set to replace Larry King on CNN Monday at 9 p.m., Piers Morgan is in both a good and bad position.

Good because expectations are modest. CNN's prime-time ratings are in the gutter. Morgan can't do much worse.

Bad because his lead-ins "John King, USA" and "Parker/Spitzer" are doing so poorly, he's going to have to draw new viewers in from the outside. That's a challenge during prime time competing against the likes of "Grey's Anatomy," "CSI" and Fox News' Sean Hannity.

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"We need the ratings to go up," Morgan said in a phone interview from New York Thursday. "It's as simple as that. It's at around 600,000 at the moment. I've got to produce compelling interviews and the ratings will come."

Indeed, he knew how important it was to nab a major A list celebrity for Monday. And he got it: Oprah Winfrey.

"You have to send out a message that you mean business," he said. "There's no question the first week of guests is spectacular." (The rest of the week will feature radio host Howard Stern, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, comedian Ricky Gervais and actor George Clooney.)

Morgan is taping most of his interviews ahead of time rather than running them live as King did. "You can get a huge buzz before it airs," he said. "You can have fun promoting them. That's a great advantage, especially if you have something juicy and tantalizing."

Indeed, Morgan has gotten oodles of advance press from his Winfrey interview when CNN released a teaser in which she said she was so depressed after her 1998 film "Beloved" flopped, she consumed 30 pounds of macaroni and cheese.

"It's not even in the show," he mused. "We actually thought that was one of the weaker lines in context of the material we had."

Morgan, a former newspaper editor who also has a chat-style show in the U.K., is best known stateside as a judge on NBC's "America's Got Talent" and winner of the first "Celebrity Apprentice" in 2008. While some critics wonder if being a reality show judge stunts his ability to be taken seriously as a journalist, Morgan scoffed.

"Anyone who thinks that has a pea brain," said Morgan, whose British bluntness is part of his charm. " 'America's Got Talent' is the most popular show in the summer. I have no worries that it would have any negative impact on my reputation or career."

He sure knows how to make headlines when need be. He told TV critics last week that he would not allow Madonna on his show unless she apologized for lying to him in the past and other sundry confrontations. "It worked, didn't it?" he said. "And she made a fateful error by saying she never heard of me."

Actor Harrison Ford this week, promoting his latest movie in the U.K., threw out Morgan's name without Morgan's prompting, saying he would never go on the show because Morgan's goal is to dig deep and Ford has no intention of revealing anything deep about himself.

“I’m not interested in the truth," Ford said. "I’m interested in selling product. You want the truth? Go someplace else. Not my business.”

Morgan was actually bemused by this. "I liked that," he said. "He's being refreshingly honest!"

Morgan knows replacing an icon like King is akin to taking over for Frank Sinatra at the Sands. "I love challenges,"  he said. "I always remember my mother giving me a postcard. It was a hippopotamus flying with a flock of seagulls with the words, 'Ambition has no bounds.' I think if you get offered these opportunities, you have to go for it."

Stern, after his interview with Morgan yesterday, told CNN in the green room he was impressed. "Piers was very good. Piers understood the medium. He had the little blue cards. He asked questions. It was amazing.I didn't even know Piers knew how to talk. I only thought he knew how to press a buzzer and say you suck."

Here is part of Morgan's interview with Simon Cowell on the U.K.'s "Life Stories."

TV PREVIEW

"Piers Morgan Tonight," 9 p.m. Mondays on CNN, starting Jan. 17

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By Rodney Ho, rho@ajc.com, AJCRadioTV blog

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