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Piers Morgan isn’t lacking for air time.
Since taking over for long-time CNN host Larry King in January, the British journalist-turned-reality television personality has become a ubiquitous force both on the cable news network and in the social media sphere. Tonight, he’ll add another couple of hours to his weekly tally when he returns as a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the Piers Morgan Tonight host last month to discuss his obsession with Twitter, his Charlie Sheen interview that almost didn’t happen and his grand plan to have two shows competing against each other without denting either one’s audience.
The Hollywood Reporter: After nearly half a year doing the CNN show, I imagine you’re getting a better grasp on what the US audience is after. How will that impact your work on America’s Got Talent?
Piers Morgan: They’re different audiences but I’m hoping that they will both help each other. It’s going to be quite odd in the summer when on two nights a week and I’m competing with myself. On the nights that AGT is airing in my CNN time slot, I think we’ll be doing stuff that wouldn’t necessarily be watched by the AGT audience. I think we’ll actively try to be strategic in going for political shows or newsy shows on those night. Things that aren’t the topics that the AGT audience might be tempted by. On a Monday night you might do your Simon Cowell interview, which they will love, where they have the chance to watch it. But no one has ever done this before. Already, it’s been a weird experience to go from interviewing [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in Jerusalem and then coming back and doing a couple days of auditions. But I like it.
THR: It’s a balancing act. How do you manage it?
Morgan: That’s exactly right, it is a balancing act. We had a surreal moment in L.A. when the earthquake happened in Japan. I ended up doing three hours of [America’s Got Talent] auditions, then CNN put a studio on the roof of the Orpheum in downtown L.A. I went up and did an hour on the earthquake live from the roof. The thing about doing a live show for CNN is that you’re always news dependent and if something happens, you go with the news. What I’ve liked about that is I ran a newsroom with 400 journalists and I was there for 9/11 and Princess Diana’s death and the Iraq War. For me, this is exactly what I used to do only it’s on TV. I love that. I love the mixture of the news shows and then when the news calms down, doing proper interviews. It’s the mixture that makes it unpredictable.
THR: You have a few months under your belt. Anything you’d like to change about your CNN show?
Morgan: I think that it’s all been trial and error thus far, and I like the errors more than the successes. The successes are pleasing for a few seconds and then you move on. It’s when things don’t work out quite how you thought that are very interesting. When we had the Kardashian sisters on, I think that was misinterpreted. It got the lowest rating that we had in about six weeks. We had a funny feeling we scheduled it wrong when we put it on a Thursday night when American Idol, Jersey Shore and other shows that would normally be a Kardashian audience. We re-aired it without making a big song and dance about it three weeks later on a Saturday night and it got a 50 percent higher rating in total audience and demo than the original airing. Had we done it then, it would have been perceived as a big success.
THR: What’s the lesson in that?
Morgan: The importance of scheduling different types of shows on different nights. When Idol and Jersey Shore are on, there’s no point in doing celebrity guests that would or could be a favorite of that audience.
THR: Featuring a single guest for an entire show was an innovative twist on the talk format, and has worked thus far because you’ve been able to book brand name talent. Now how do you maintain that?
Morgan: One thing I keep hearing is, “Bloody hell, you’ve had good guests.” I think word is getting out there and I think the most useful thing for me has been getting the Hollywood crowd watching the news shows that I do. At one of the Oscar parties, Quentin Tarantino came up to me and went, “Man, I love your Egypt shows. I’ll come on your show any time.” He didn’t mean to come on and talk about Egypt; he was interested in being on my show because the news shows that I do have given me a credibility as a journalist that he wasn’t aware of. In that sense, having all this news has been really good for me.
THR: Is there an interview you’ve done on the show that you feel like is a good showpiece or window into who you are as an interviewer?
Morgan: There have been a few. I still think Oprah was a great way to launch the show to a bigger audience. People said to me afterward that I was either too soft or that they were surprised by how hard I was. There was no middle ground. It’s exactly what you want to be. And I’d say the Charlie Sheen one. For sheer live drama excitement and also because by then I’d been getting a bit fed up with the fact that he doesn’t do them all live. Two-thirds of my show so far have been live, and I love live TV. Most of Got Talent ends up being live in the summer. Having Charlie walk in and go live for an hour was electrifying.
THR: How do you make the decision between what goes live and what is taped?
Morgan: For someone like Eva Longoria, we want to sit down for a lot longer and edit it down and have a really emotional, proper in-depth interview with her. You don’t get that the same way live. So it’s very much dependent on the guests and the circumstances. Having Charlie Sheen was a big moment. I think doing Netanyahu was a big moment for the show because we got the first interview with him since all the uprising in the Middle East. I think people thought we were suitably tough on him without being unfairly tough. He’s a huge world leader in the center of this massive story and we got the exclusive. All of those in different ways have been really good for us.
THR: Many, including me, have called you one of the world’s best self-promoters, particularly with your incessant tweets. Fair?
Morgan: Everyone in this business is a self-promoter; I just pride myself on being better at it than most of them. [Laughs] Here’s an interesting story is what happened with Charlie Sheen and Twitter, which yes, I’m obsessed with now. We couldn’t promote that show until he walked in the door because we didn’t know for certain that he’d be walking through the door. He walked through with five minutes to go before the live show started. So at five minutes to 6 PM, I put one tweet out that said, “Breaking news update: Charlie Sheen live in the studio.” We got the figures back and it showed that we got half a million more viewers in the five minutes after the tweet. That’s the power of Twitter.
THR: What was the back-up plan had he not walked through the door?
Morgan: Yeah, but it would have been a very boring alternative. We had a whole news show ready to go.
THR: You’re back for another season of AGT. What’s the biggest difference between last season and this one?
Morgan: The talent this year is higher than it’s ever been, no question.
THR: And your judging of it?
Morgan: Sharon [Osbourne] shouts ‘Breaking News’ a lot just to annoy me. I’d say Sharon has been a tougher judge this year. The judges all around have been tougher.
THR: Come fall, your pal Simon Cowell is adding another talent competition with The X Factor on Fox. Any predictions?
Morgan: I would never bet against Simon having another smash hit. X Factor is a very strong format and he’s still the best at what he does. I’m looking forward to it.
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