Can Piers Morgan Save CNN?

A series of attempts to resuscitate CNN during the evening hours have culminated in next week’s launch of Piers Morgan Tonight. The fumbling around replacing Larry King and the decision to give former Elliott Spitzer a political talk show in the slot just before Morgan’s new 9pm interview show already cost one CNN’s head the job of running the domestic network.

Today, Executive Producer of Jonathan Wald does an interview with Forbes’s Lacey Rose. Wald is significant for a number of reasons. He is, in many ways, responsible for the look-and-feel of CNBC as it exists today. In the aftermath of the post-9/11 recession, CNBC’s initial style of news programing gave way to a personality-driven hybrid of news, expert opinion, banter and bickering. Wald played an important role in re-shaping the tone of financial news.

It’s easy to make fun of the worst aspects of the food-fight on CNBC. Harder to do would be to argue that it works better as compelling television. CNBC has a lot of airtime to fill. Attracting eyeballs around the clock isn’t easy. Waiting for news to drive viewers is too passive for a media business and breaking details have become a commodity now that twitter and the web have out metabolized TV.

Here’s Wald on how Piers Morgan will differentiate himself:

Moneywood: In today’s crowded TV landscape, how do you cut through the clutter?

Jonathan Wald: I think there’s a lot of very similar programming out there in terms of left vs right, buy vs. sell argument television. This isn’t that. I would say the closest thing to this show is Charlie Rose. But this is a far more mainstream interview show about what America is talking about, whereas Charlie Rose is more of a business and intellectual elite interview show.

From show to show, we tend to see the same celebrities passing through. How will PMT keep it fresh?

The other shows that have guests on, whether its late night, daytime or the morning shows, don’t tend to spend as much time with the guests as we hope to. They’re on for a segment or two and that’s it. Ideally, the guests on Piers Morgan Tonight will sit for an hour. Whether they’ll be joined by other people they’re related to or involved with remains to be seen, but we hope to really make this a long-form interview show.

The interesting question is not how Morgan will be like Charlie Rose but how he’ll be different from Larry King who was, it should be remembered, one of the most popular radio interviewers ever. Where King was fawning, accommodating and sometimes simply promotional toward his guests, Wald seems to be suggesting that Morgan will make himself more a part of the story. (And the running battle with Greta Van Susteren over “posh parties” suggests that he will be part of the story.)

Part of what makes Charlie Rose work–love him or hate him–is that Rose considers himself a peer among his interlocutors. Hence the timeless criticism that Rose won’t shut up and let a guest answer a question. That, however, is caricature. Rose’s secret as an interviewer is more like Brian Lamb’s, a willingness to ask a softball question and wait out the answer.

Safe, comfortable interviewees have a tendency to reveal more than embattled ones who are on guard. Though I suspect Morgan is not going to be like Rose or Lamb at all. He likes playing the knave too much. That’s a good thing.

CNN’s best programming comes from the shows with strong personalities like Anderson Cooper and Fareed Zakaria (even Elliott Spitzer would be good if the format of his show as re-conceived.) It’s worst is the non-stop pablum that gets passed off as news.

Which points to the real problems facing CNN. Making Piers Morgan a hit is only one step in figuring how to make CNN relevant again. No matter how successful Wald and Morgan are, they can only win a battle on the flanks. The heart of the war for how to animate and relate the news will lie elsewhere.


Piers Morgan Producer’s Goal: “More. Better. Now.”
Moneywood/Forbes; January 13, 2011

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