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Piers Morgan experiment fails at CNN

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Dumped by CNN for “low ratings,” 40-year-old Piers Morgan got the bad news from CNN’s 48-year-old president Jeff Zucker that his show was cancelled. If there were problems with “Piers Morgan Live,” the blame has to go with Zucker & Co. for firing 80-year-old Larry King in 2010, the venerable, well-liked talk show whose name was a household word in talk shows circles. Zucker misread the tealeaves in 2011, blaming King for the network’s low ratings, while competing with Fox News who's shown, if nothing else, better instincts at picking on-air talent, either attractive model-types or amusing characters. It couldn’t be more ironic that Zucker, while CEO of NBC-Universal in 2010, tossed out “Tonight, Show” host Jay Leno, only to reinstate him after a short experiment with Conan O’Brien. Zucker’s mistake stems from blaming on-air talent rather than himself.

Watching Piers Morgan get the ax after only three years on the job indicates that Zucker tends to repeat the same mistakes.. When he took over for Larry King Jan. 17, 2011, Zucker picked Morgan over 39-year-old Ryan Seacrest, who, despite his heavy music-and-TV-crazed experience, might have grown into a better replacement for Larry King. Morgan was doomed from the get-go because of his heavy British accent but, more importantly, his thin skin when challenged by provocative guests. It didn’t take much to trigger Piers, often in shouting matches with guests who took exception to his views on gun control, especially after the Dec. 14, 2012 Sandy Hook massacre. Morgan’s problem was less related his strong views on the Second Amendment than his emotional overreactions while interviewing controversial guests. Talk show hosts must show a steely even keel.

Announcing the end to “Piers Morgan Live,” CNN lost more credibility trying to survive in fiercely competitive cable news environment. “CNN confirms that ‘Piers Morgan Live’ is ending,” said CNN vice president of communications Barbara Levin told the French news wire AFP. “The date of the final program is still to be determined,” fueling speculation that King might return for another stint until the network can figure out a suitable replacement. Zucker made a misguided move in 2010 blaming Larry King for CNN’s slumping ratings. CNN’s problems stemmed from when silky-voiced news anchor Bernard Shaw retired from CNN in March 1, 2001. Since replacing him with the raspy Wolf Blitzer, CNN never replaced the Walter Cronkite-like stability given to network by Shaw. Now Zucker must peel the egg off his face and find a suitable replacement for Morgan.

Before CNN’s finds itself selling more “Vegematics,” it needs to replace Morgan at the earliest possible time. Network executives, especially Zucker, won’t admit they made a foolish blunder retiring Larry King in 2010, only to replace him with the wrong guy. King’s affable personality worked well in the talk show format, unlike Morgan, whose in-your-face style turned off CNN’s audience. Piers’ hostile interview with National Rifle Assn. Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre—and other Second Amendment advocates—in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre exposed his short fuse. Telling the New York Times that the show had “run its course,” Morgan ignores his own role in the show’s low ratings. If Piers injected less bias, showed less reactivity to provocative guests, kept things upbeat and copasetic, Zucker wouldn’t face another public embarrassment.

Piers’ problems had little to do with his knowledge or interviewing skills. Spending years with London’s Daily Mirror Tabloid and now defunct News of the World, Morgan had all the right stuff to have succeeded at CNN, were it not for his lack on personal familiarity with American pop culture. Talking about cricket or other British quirks had little to do with why “Piers Morgan Live” failed. “It’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings,” said Morgan, attributing the problems to “slow news days.” What CNN and Morgan don’t get is that Piers’ British accent or interests had little to do with why the show failed. Morgan got too hot-under-the-collar when good journalism requires hosts to show less emotion, more logic and a sophisticated sense of humor. Piers’ overreactions to the gun issue mirrored his lack of maturity in other areas.

Picking on-air talent isn’t rocket science but does require some common sense. When CNN suffered ratings problems and didn’t measure up to Fox News in 2010, Zucker shouldn’t have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Like his miscalculation with Leno while heading NBC-Universal in 2010, Zucker & Co. should have looked at the big picture and not messed with a good thing when it came to Larry King. CNN’s problems had less to do with “Larry King Live” and more to do with its uneven on-air lineup, needing minor tweaks rather than a major overhaul. Blaming Piers’ problems on his position on gun control fails to address his impetuous reactions to guests with provocative issues. Arguing, fighting, insulting, disparaging and otherwise offending guests isn’t the best way to improve Nielsen ratings. CNN’s replacement better not repeat the same mistakes.

About the Author

John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news. He’d editor of OnlineColumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.

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