x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Piers Morgan's new chat show

The reaction to Piers Morgan's new CNN chat show has been mixed

Piers Morgan chats to Oprah Winfrey on Piers Morgan Tonight. Winfrey said he had 'been surprising'.
Piers Morgan chats to Oprah Winfrey on Piers Morgan Tonight. Winfrey said he had 'been surprising'.

"My persona polarises people. Half love me, half want to kill me." The brash British journalist and television personality Piers Morgan uttered these words in an interview with The Times in 2009. Two years on, not much has changed. America's critics were split down the middle after the first week of Morgan's new, high-profile nightly chat-show on CNN - which is probably just how he likes it.

"By turns charming, vain, well-informed, and fawning - but mostly just fawning," said The Boston Globe's Matthew Gilbert of Morgan's opening-night performance, with Oprah Winfrey as the guest.

The Hollywood Reporter was similarly unimpressed by the show's tone. "It did seem like two self-important rich people talking to each other," it mocked. The New York Times said he was "too timid... the plus side of his downer of a first day is that he has nowhere to go but up."

But there were, as the week continued, enough positive reviews for Morgan to believe he can make a success of the show. And the biggest compliment of all came with the ratings - not spectacular, but definitely better than his predecessor Larry King's last months. That's what Morgan is really concerned about: when asked about improving viewing figures a few weeks ago, he was once again in black-and-white mode. "If I do, I'm a genius. If I don't, I'm a half-wit. There is no middle ground," he told The New York Times.

Piers Morgan Tonight is an interesting gamble - both for Morgan and CNN. Larry King Live had nosedived in popularity, which many suggested was because the 77-year-old King was himself getting tired of the format. But the new show is, if nothing else, a reminder that the big, sit-down interview with stars and statesmen is something of an anachronism in the 21st century. We're now used to chat-shows filmed in front of a live studio audience, with the attendant distractions of whooping fans or musical interludes from cool bands with records to promote.

So to have Morgan and his second guest, shock-jock Howard Stern, sitting across a table for an hour was either a refreshing opportunity for Morgan to get under the skin of his uncompromising guest or boringly overlong, depending on your outlook.

Morgan is certainly playing a canny game. In his native Britain, most viewers know him as supremely cocky, but on Piers Morgan Tonight he exaggerated the image of a new-boy (despite his appearance on America's Got Talent, he's still not that well-known Stateside) to get viewers onside. As his first-night interview with Winfrey drew to a close, he asked her, on air: "How have I done?" Winfrey's tellingly non-committal answer was: "You have been surprising." And he seemed to revel in Howard Stern telling him: "My friend, you have a lot to prove here… to be successful in England is very easy, but England is about the size of Philadelphia. To conquer England takes about two days. America is something else."

But in one way, Morgan was given an easy ride - his first two interviewees were well versed in the art of the interview themselves. Both Winfrey and Stern have, after all, made a living out of it. He has also benefited from a couple of headline-grabbing moments in George Clooney's malaria announcement and Ricky Gervais's first post-Golden Globes interview.

But it was the interview with Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday that was the real test of whether, as the CNN website boasts, Piers Morgan "pushes the boundaries of the interview". Now and then, it did.

It was to Morgan's credit that he tried to get beyond Rice's polished exterior. But it also showed up that, however confident he is, he's still new to the game. Rice answered personal questions as quickly as possible and, when the time came to confront the really interesting topics, she batted them back with the consummate ease of someone who had worked out her position months, if not years, ago. Whether he can get his subjects to tell him anything they haven't already told will be the true test in the weeks and months to come. For now, the show could do with a little more spontaneity. Unlike Larry King, it's not live, which was a deliberate choice so Morgan and CNN could hit the social networks with advance clips and gossip. But it means that the actual programme needs to live up to tweets such as "BREAKING NEWS: Just finished Ricky Gervais.....WOW. If I were you, I'd tune into @PiersTonight tomorrow at 9pm ET. #electrifying."

It wasn't that good.

* Ben East