Piers Morgan on How He'd Save CNN, Jeff Zucker's Future and His Tweets to Rupert Murdoch (Q&A)

CNN Heroes Piers Morgan - P 2012
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CNN Heroes Piers Morgan - P 2012

The cable host tells THR the channel's ripe for reinvention: "It's better television if a host says what they think."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Piers Morgan, who joined CNN almost two years ago, has some ideas for how the network can pull itself out of the cable news ratings basement. “We should collectively as a network be more aggressive, more provocative, more debate-y,” he says. Averaging 576,000 viewers, with 175,000 in the 25-to-54 demo for the month of October, Morgan places third behind his 9 p.m. competitors Sean Hannity (Fox News) and Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) but has the most-watched show on the network, beating Anderson Cooper’s 8 p.m. program. Morgan recently has moved away from the single-interview format that he envisioned when his show launched and toward multiple topics and guests with more live shows. “It’ll be crackly, provocative, opinionated,” On Monday, Oct. 30, when Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast, Piers Morgan Tonight was the top-rated cable news program in the demo, pulling in 1 million viewers 24-54 with 2.4 million overall.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What does CNN need to do to be competitive again?

Piers Morgan: There has been a slight timidity internally in not wanting to be provocative or opinionated on air because you could stray into being partisan. If the anchor has taken a position on gun control or abortion, somehow you’re losing that neutrality. I don’t agree. I have become increasingly vocal on my show about these very issues, totally unafraid to say what I think. It’s actually better television if a host says: “You know what I think about abortion? I think it should be down to the women.” What I won’t say is if I’m going to vote for Obama or Romney. The beauty for me is [as a Brit], I can’t.

THR: You’ve had a lot of Twitter feuds. Are you really feuding, or is it just a way to get attention?

Morgan: I’m not going to be a magician revealing how I do my tricks, am I? A month before I went on air, I was the anti-Twitter guy. But the moment I realized it was about how many followers you could have, it was like the lights came on. Then it became: I have to be the most followed journalist in the world. I’ve got 2.8 million. I've only got one journalist ahead of me: Anderson Cooper. 

THR: A Vanity Fair article suggested you and Cooper don’t get along. True?

Morgan: We see each other every single day, and the conversation normally goes: “Hi, Anderson, how are you?” And he goes: “I’m fine, thanks, Piers. How are you, mate?” It’s ridiculous. I thought it was laughable. The thing about CNN, everybody gets on.

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THR: Do you think Jeff Zucker would make a good leader for CNN?

Morgan: I love Jeff Zucker. I wouldn’t be here without him. He was the boss at NBC Universal. I was under a contract [as host of America’s Got Talent]; everybody had said to him, "Don’t let him go," and, "Why do we want to share our talent with CNN?" And he said: “I get it. This is your dream job, and I’m going to let you do it.” He’s a very capable executive. But I think there are lots of people who could do that job very capably, and it won’t be my decision. I can say with total honesty I have no idea who is going to get the job.

THR: You’ve said you admire Donald Trump. Why?

Morgan: He’s the personification of brash, successful America incorporated. The guy, whether you like him or not, is a brilliant self-publicist, a brilliant businessman. He’s a billionaire; he’s very proud of his country. Now I don’t think everything he does is necessarily a good idea. I’m sure he doesn’t think everything I do is a good idea.

THR: So you're not going to cut off his oxygen by not putting him on the air anymore?

Morgan: I am definitely not going to do that. Donald is always welcome on my show. It doesn't mean I always give him an easy time. 

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THR: You likened Clint Eastwood’s infamous empty-chair performance at the Republican National Convention to the “crazy uncle at the Christmas party” and more recently said he is “self-imploding.” Have you tried to book him on your show?

Morgan: Yeah, I don’t think he’s available. I don't think he sees me as a friendly ear. I’d love to interview him just to say: "Clint, what are you doing? You are the coolest guy in Hollywood. You are one of my all-time movie heroes. Please stop this."

THR: Do you agree with the conservative refrain that liberals run the mainstream media?

Morgan: Certainly at CNN there's a presumption that we lean to the left. I don't see it. And certainly on my show we put on more Republicans than we do Democrats. And I don't think any of them say I give them anything but a fair time. It's why John McCainRudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich come back on very happily. I give them all a fair crack of the whip.

THR: Do you watch any of the programs on the other news channels?

Morgan: I love Bill O'Reilly, even though a lot of it drives me bonkers. I think it's great television. I think he's a class act. I think it's just like a comfortable pair of angry slippers. I think Rachel Maddow is very good at what she does. It's not my kind of thing; it's a very kind of a cerebral, left-wing rant, but it's good TV. She's smart, and she's been great for MSNBC. 

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THR:  Trinity Mirror,  the British newspaper company you used to work for, is now the target of hacking lawsuits.

Morgan: I’m not going to get into the hacking because I’ve talked myself to death about it. What I would say about it is that there has been an impression built up that The Daily Mirror, which I was the editor-in-chief of for 10 years, was a version of the National Inquirer, particularly with the Hollywood set. And what I think they need to understand is that The Daily Mirror actually did hard news. We won every major British newspaper award for our coverage of 9/11. We did campaigns to East Timor and Pakistan and Afghanistan. We had people on the ground in Iraq. This impression that it was just a scandal sheet is so far removed from reality.

THR: Do you think part of the reason you’ve become a media target in the hacking scandal is that you wrote about hacking in your book?

Morgan: I think I’m a target because I'm one of the most famous people involved in the scandal. It doesn’t surprise me. And all the lawyers that want to latch on to a juicy bone, I'm the perfect way to do it. The reality is, I do not believe that any journalist that worked for me broke the law, and I've seen no evidence to suggest that they did. The staff will tell you that I did not countenance that kind of thing. And so I feel frustrated that there is a misconception about the kind of editor I was. 

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THR: What was your best interview?

Morgan: Probably the Robert Blake interview. I actually have never seen the security guys come onto the studio floor as they did for that. I thought something was going to happen. It was so crazy and yet such compelling television. Then I would say [Iranian president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was a very significant one for us because we got the world-exclusive interview when he came here [in September] for the United Nations, and that’s a big deal. And I think the general verdict was I gave him a pretty hard time and got some good stuff out of him and that it was a good bit of combat.

THR:  So are you moving away from celebrities hawking something and toward newsmakers?

Morgan: I would not buy stock in the C-list celebrity guests. I think we're interested in big stars or intelligent people, preferably both. I met Gen. David Petraeus, who I'm a huge fan of, at the Vanity Fair White House Correspondents’ Dinner party. And he said: “I really like your show, but I just don't like all the C-list celebrities. Why do you bother with them?” And I didn't really have a good answer. What we should be doing is filling that space with intelligent debate about issues and stories of the day and then saving the celebrity time for people who matter, who are proper stars and have something to say.

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THR: You once edited Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. Do you two still talk?

Morgan: Occasionally. We tweet each other. Rupert took a gamble on me at age 28 to be the youngest editor of his paper. It was a huge leap of faith. And so much as it’s the common thing at the moment to go around saying Rupert Murdoch is evil, that’s not my experience. He’s a combative business guy, somebody you’d want to go to war with.

Email: Marisa.Guthrie@thr.com; Twitter: @MarisaGuthrie