Piers Morgan a Week In: Ratings Slipping, Confidence Climbing

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Photo: Lorenzo Bevilaqua/CNN

The Nielsen numbers for Friday are out, and they cement the early impression of Piers Morgan's first week on cable news: He debuted with a slobbery splash and then drifted into a comfortable, respectable range of viewership. His first interview, with Oprah Winfrey, drew 2.99 million watchers. As the week progressed, his numbers slid down, with pretaped interviews ringing in thusly: Howard Stern (1.27 million viewers), Condoleezza Rice (1.03 million), Ricky Gervais (1.03 million), and George Clooney (718,000). CNN, presumably, anticipated such a slide; debut nights are often followed by a slump as shows find their equilibrium. In fact, 1 million viewers is substantially more than his predecessor Larry King was pulling in at the end of his reign. "The show is off to a great start," a spokeswoman told Intel. "We're incredibly pleased."

For all the decent numbers, Morgan was still trounced all week by Sean Hannity on Fox News. FNC stacked the deck by waiting until Morgan's debut night to host Sarah Palin in her first television interview since the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, which helped Hannity handily clear Morgan's impressive debut. As the week went on and Morgan dropped off, the conservative talker continued to hover around his usual just-above-2-million mark.

Of course, the first episode of a show isn't a fair measure of how it will perform — nor is the first week. As Howard Stern said to Morgan on his second day: "The first week is great. You have Oprah, you have me. What's going to happen three months from now when you're interviewing Scott Baio? Who's gonna care?"

But it was good to watch Morgan in his own studio, facing off with Stern. He recovered from some of the weak-seeming obsequiousness he displayed across from Winfrey and gave off a comfortable, confident vibe. Stern obliged him by giving him some biting quotes about Jay Leno and generally smart, honest banter. (He also brought him a big boost in the 25-to-54 news target demographic, allowing him to beat Hannity on that field the only time last week.)

The Clooney appearance on Friday was a bit of a misstep, with the actor himself appearing via satellite and discussing his work and political stances almost exclusively. (Morgan spent much time on the whole tired Clooney-versus-paparazzi story line, which resounded more in the United Kingdom as it related to the death of Princess Diana.) As if to underscore the fact that he couldn't get the real Clooney in studio, Morgan brought in the actor's father, Nick, to sit across from him. And he sadly steered almost completely clear of Clooney's mysterious personal life, a courtesy he didn't extend to Condoleezza Rice, whose singleness he dwelt upon to a point that some viewers became uncomfortable. Jezebel gave him flak for asking whether she "dreamed of a fairytale wedding" or was "high maintenance." He did better with fellow Brit Ricky Gervais, whose appearance was perfectly timed after his controversial host stint at the Golden Globes.

There's something about Piers Morgan that will take some getting used to. At first I couldn't put my finger on it: Was it his voice, the sort of rolling, high-pitched lilt that was so different from Larry King's? Was it the brightness of the studio? The fact that he has no discernible neck? He's very smart and a diligent interviewer, but there's a sort of soft edge to him that I couldn't quite relate to. And then I realized: It's his Britishness. There's a sort of polite obliqueness that, in the face of American bluntness, seems in a way indirect — even when he's asking straightforward questions. It's not an ineffective interviewing technique; in fact, it's the sort of cocked-head questioning that sometimes results in new answers to old questions. It's just very different than King's approach. Stern picked up on the Britishness as well. "I like you," he said. "But who the hell knows what you're going to do on here? They tell me you're a journalist … but people in America don't know that … England's the size of Philadelphia. To conquer England it takes about two days."

Morgan shot back: "I'm doing the interview, Howard. This is not your show. I'm in charge!" Showing a bit of edge, he added: "You call yourself the King of All Media. You don't even have kings in America. You're not allowed to be a king." If we get more of that Piers Morgan, and less of the fawning, twee British import, CNN might have something solid on its hands.

Meanwhile, so far Morgan's been competing pretty closely with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. With no Olbermann for a lead-in, Morgan now has an additional opportunity to try to get an edge on her. Looks like we could have a cable-news horse race in the nine o'clock hour once again! Too bad for MSNBC and CNN, it's merely for second place.