That’s all folks: CNN cancels Piers Morgan’s show
Low ratings for ‘Piers Morgan Live’, with a fraction of viewers compared with competitors
Piers Morgan on the set of his CNN show ‘Piers Morgan Tonight’ at the Time Warner Center in New York in 2011. Three years after taking over for Larry King, Morgan has seen his ratings hit new lows. Photograph: The New York Times
There have been times when CNN host Piers Morgan didn’t seem to like America very much - and American audiences have been more than willing to return the favour.
Three years after taking over for Larry King, Morgan has seen the ratings for “Piers Morgan Live” hit some new lows, drawing a fraction of viewers compared with competitors at Fox News and MSNBC.
It’s been an unhappy collision between a British television personality who refuses to assimilate - the only football he cares about is round and his lectures on guns were rife with contempt - and a CNN audience that is intrinsically provincial.
After all, the people who tune into a cable news network are, by their nature, deeply interested in America.
CNN’s president, Jeffrey Zucker, has other problems, but none bigger than Morgan and his plum 9pm time slot. Morgan said last week that he and Mr Zucker had been talking about the show’s failure to connect and had decided to pull the plug, probably in March.
Crossing an ocean for a replacement for Larry King, who had ratings problems of his own near the end, was probably not a great idea to begin with.
For a cable news station like CNN, major stories are like oxygen. When something important or scary happens in the United States, many of us have an immediate reflex to turn on CNN.
When I find Morgan telling me what it all means, I have a similar reflex to dismiss what he is saying.
It is difficult for him to speak credibly on significant American events because, after all, he just got here.
I received a return call from Morgan and was prepared for an endless argument over my assumptions. Not so. His show, he conceded, was not performing as he had hoped and was nearing its end.
“It’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings,” he said, adding that although there had been times when the show connected in terms of audience, slow news days were problematic.
“Look, I am a British guy debating American cultural issues, including guns, which has been very polarizing, and there is no doubt that there are many in the audience who are tired of me banging on about it,” he said.
“That’s run its course and Jeff and I have been talking for some time about different ways of using me.”
Morgan said that his show, along with much of the rest of CNN, had been imprisoned by the news cycle and that he was interested in doing fewer appearances to greater effect - big, major interviews that would be events in themselves.
Although a change has long been rumoured, it was the first time that both he, and the CNN executives I talked to, acknowledged that his nightly show was on the way out. Plans for a replacement at 9pm are still underway, but Morgan and the network are in talks about him remaining at CNN in a different role.
Mr Zucker, the former chief of NBC, inherited Morgan from Jonathan Klein, his predecessor, but it is now his problem to fix.
In the year he has been there, CNN has introduced promising shows around the edges and will be unveiling documentaries along the lines of the very successful ‘Blackfish’ to run on Thursday at 10pm.
But the chronic troubles of prime time remain.
Sometime before the network “upfront” events in April, when advertisers buy commercial time for fall, Mr Zucker needs to signal how he will fix CNN’s prime-time problem, and that begins with Morgan, whose contract ends in September.
Morgan has some significant skills that do translate across platforms and cultures. While working as a newspaper editor and television personality in Britain, he was involved in a number of controversies, but he developed a reputation as a talented, probing interviewer.
In his current role, he has shown an ability not only to book big guests - former president Bill Clinton, Warren Buffett, the real Wolf of Wall Street among them - but also to dig in once they are on set.
“I think I can credibly do news and the ratings reflect that, but it is not really the show that I set out to do,” he told me. “There are all kinds of people who can do news here. I’d like to do work - interviews with big celebrities and powerful people - that is better suited to what I do well and fit with what Jeff is trying to do with the network.”
Old hands in the television news business suggest that there are two things a presenter cannot have: an accent or a beard. Morgan is clean-shaven and handsome enough, but there are tells in his speech - the way he says the president’s name for one thing (Ob-AA-ma) - that suggest that he is not from around here.
There are other tells as well. On Friday morning, criticizing the decision to dismiss a cricket player, he tweeted, “I’m sure @StuartBroad8 is right and KP’s sacking will ‘improve performance’ of the England team. Look forward to seeing this at T20 WC.” Morgan might want to lay off the cricket references if he is worried about his credibility with American audiences. (His endless trolling of his critics on Twitter did not exactly help, either.)
People might point to Simon Cowell as a man with an accent and a penchant for slashing discourse that Americans loved, but Cowell is dealing with less-than-spontaneous musical performances, not signal events in the American news narrative. There was, of course, the counterexample of David Frost, who did important work in news, but Frost did popular special reports and was not a chronic presence in American living rooms.
Morgan, who was chosen in spite of that fact that he had never done a live show, had the misfortune of sliding into the loafers of King, who, for all his limitations, was a decent and reliable stand-in for the average Joe. In a sense, Morgan is a prisoner of two islands: Britain and Manhattan.
While I may share his feelings about the need for additional strictures on guns, having grown up in the Midwest, I know that many people come by their guns honestly and hold onto them dearly for sincere reasons.
Morgan’s approach to gun regulation was more akin to King George III, peering down his nose at the unruly colonies and wondering how to bring the savages to heel. He might have wanted to recall that part of the reason the right to bear arms is codified in the Constitution is that Britain was trying to disarm the citizenry at the time.
He regrets none of it, but clearly understands his scolding of “stupid” opponents of gun laws was not everyone’s cup of tea. “I’m in danger of being the guy down at the end of the bar who is always going on about the same thing,” he said.
He added that he was sure there were plenty of people in the heartland angry “about this British guy telling them how to lead their lives and what they should do with their guns.”
In this media age, no one is expected to be a eunuch, without values or beliefs, but Morgan’s lecturing on the evils of guns have clanked hard against the CNN brand, which, for good or ill, is built on the middle way. We don’t look for moral leadership from CNN, or from a British host on a rampage.
Guns, along with many other great and horrible things, are knit into the fabric of this country. There are folkways peculiar to America that Morgan is just learning, including the fact that if you want to stick out, you first have to work on fitting in.
New York Times