EXCLUSIVE: Piers Morgan tells us that he’s planning big changes to the Larry King Live interview slot he inherits in January. “The format, everything, will change. I’m not just going to be another man sitting in the CNN studio wearing red braces.” Morgan also promises he’ll beat his Fox News rivals (see below) — but not if he expects to do that with overexposed guests like Simon Cowell and Donald Trump or what he says is his top “get”, President Obama. The production team needs to be finalised before guests are signed, he says. Morgan tells us he hasn’t locked down his show’s executive producer yet, “though we are about to. What I would say is that there will be significant format changes, and the show will look and feel different and distinctive to Larry’s. I don’t want to copy him because he’s a legend. You don’t follow Sinatra at the Sands and try and warble My Way…”
The show will be mostly filmed in New York apart from 3 months in the summer when Morgan is in Los Angeles judging America’s Got Talent. He notes, “One key change will definitely be that I will pre-tape many of the interviews so I can market and promote them in advance of them airing, which I believe will increase ratings. I’ve done this very successfully with my Life Stories series in the UK, with subjects as diverse as Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Simon Cowell, and Richard Branson.”
Morgan also tells us his mission is to help boost CNN’s sagging primetime line-up against Fox News, MSNBC, and other rivals. Larry King Live scored its lowest monthly viewer total in nearly 20 years in May, averaging just 653,000 viewers each night. And, last week, CNN underwent a management shakeup. CNN overall is a ratings mess right now and getting its clock cleaned by Fox News. So the older cable news channel brought in the guy who talent-scouted Glenn Beck, Nancy Grace, and Joy Behar to fix it, HLN’s Ken Jautz. The TV world has changed since Larry King first began interviewing 25 years ago, says Morgan, noting that back then there wasn’t any Fox News or even MSNBC. Since then, there’s been an explosion in cable TV with rapid-fire hosts like Glenn Beck who don’t do long interviews with newsmakers. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re great at what they do,” says Morgan. “But I think there’s a gap in the market. For years, Larry King has shown the power of the extended interview, which is something I’ve specialised in with my British talk shows. When it comes to my rivals, however long it takes, I’m going to be there to win.” Morgan says, “The main message I want to communicate is that I intend this show to be a game-changer in terms of how interview shows are conducted on American TV. And I haven’t joined CNN to come 2nd, 3rd, or 4th.
“America’s Got Talent has been the No. 1 show for five years, Britain’s Got Talent has been No. 1 in the UK for four years, Life Stories is the No. 1 talk show in the UK, and I won Celebrity Apprentice. Losing is not really something I’ve either experienced on TV, or wish to experience. A character trait hardened by my time working for the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Simon Cowell. It will take time, but we’ll get there.”
Morgan acknowledged that “some seem to be questioning” his journalistic credentials. He was sacked in 2004 as editor of London’s Daily Mirror after the newspaper conceded photos it ran of British soldiers abusing an Iraqi were fake. (In a statement at the time, the Mirror said it had fallen victim to a “calculated and malicious hoax” and that it would be “inappropriate” for Morgan to continue.) But Morgan says, “I was a journalist in Britain for 20 years, the youngest national newspaper editor for 50 years, and editor-in-chief of two big-selling newspapers for 10 years. Running a team of 400 journalists on stories like 9/11, Diana’s death, and the Iraq war. You don’t do that if you’re a halfwit. So prepare for fireworks. Because I know that to get CNN back to the top in prime time is going to take a lot of hard work, determination, tenacity, mischief, revelation, aggression, fun, and brilliant interviews.
“As you guys might put it… It’s time to kick some ratings butt.”
Morgan says the only thing he wants to be judged on is his interviewing ability. In England, his so-called scoops included getting now Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to admit he’d slept with nearly 30 women and actress Helen Mirren to admit to taking cocaine. Taciturn ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s eyes welled up during Morgan’s TV interview. Piers says he thinks the secret of good interviewing is being a good listener. The ex-Daily Mirror editor-in-chief doesn’t agree when Deadline’s Tim Adler suggested that American TV interviewers are too soft on their guests. The British are just more irreverent and cheekier, Morgan says. “I’ll have succeeded if people feel they’ve had a pretty challenging hour and been open with me. On the other hand, people in the U.S. know I don’t suffer fools.”
President Obama tops Morgan’s list of potential CNN interviewees, although nothing’s agreed yet. Morgan’s reality show pals Donald Trump and Simon Cowell have already said they’ll be interviewed. “Lots of people want to do my new show. I’m very confident about getting the people we want because I know lots of people,” Morgan tells us. He also says there’s no truth to the rumour that Madonna heads a supposed list of celebrities he wants to keep off his CNN show because of run-ins with them in the past. “I may rescind the ban on Madonna,” he jokes. “Listen, if she wants to come on the show, then great. It’s just that we have a bit of history.” That’s because last April Morgan spoke about how cynical he was about celebrities such as Madonna doing charity work.