After weeks of building buzz, on Monday night it was finally time for Piers Morgan Tonight to fill television’s biggest suspenders in the nine o’clock CNN slot that Larry King made famous. Morgan’s interviews will clearly be more personal and pointed. He came across as polite and intelligent, and clearly does his homework. But his choice of Oprah Winfrey as his first guest was a drastic error. From the hotel room interview set — more Barbara Walters Fascinating People than anything resembling King’s familiar dark-room-and-desk setup — to his obsequious bowing and scraping, the interview with the reigning queen of TV made him look like a commoner.
The thing is, Morgan’s no amateur. He’s a journalist with decades of experience in print and television — not that he appeared that way in a sedate hotel room filled with flowers and cigar boxes.
(There’s a reason Barbara uses rooms like this, and Diane Sawyer, and the good people of 60 Minutes. Their interviews are soft. They’re restrained. Piers is big and loud. His normal set, which it seems like he’ll start using later this week for a sit-down with Howard Stern, is much more suited to him.)
Not being an amateur is one thing. Trying to face off with Oprah Winfrey is quite another. She is a legendary interviewer and an alpha dog, and she put Piers through his paces. Nine minutes in, she was telling him exactly what he wasn’t going to get out of her, saying, “You’re wasting your time with the Stedman thing!” She talked directly to the camera. After Piers asked whether she had ever been in therapy, she turned the query right around on him and went on the attack. When he asked her what advice she’d give to Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, she calmly stated that she’d be saving that for when she got Vick on her own show. And near the end of the interview, she just told him what question he should ask her. (It was, “What do you do best?” When Piers asked it, Oprah gave a canned, hokey answer.)
Piers’s final plea was, “How did I do?” It was the first time he’d asked it explicitly, but it seemed like the whole interview was about seeking Oprah’s approval. He constantly asked how it was going, and backed off easily when Oprah rebuffed him — never pushing for something deeper or truer from the gifted talker. “C’mon,” he said, asking about the biggest check she ever wrote to the IRS. “Give the new boy a break.” His giggling style might have come across as charming in the studio on his own turf, or in an interview with someone less intimidating. Here it made him seem sycophantic and almost childish. When he reached out to her and said, “Everything you touch turns to gold. Could you touch me?” I almost turned off the television.
It wasn’t all bad, though. There were signs of life in his interviewing style. He asked questions that real people would want to ask Oprah, even though she’d been asked many of them before. Questions like “Do you feel regal?” and “Do you like being famous?” provoked interesting answers. Likewise, “How many times have you been properly in love?” Her painful story of going to live with her father as a secretly pregnant 14-year-old felt poignant and honest. And he got her to talk a little bit about being rich, which was funny and refreshing. “I’m not sitting around counting it,” Oprah said, brushing aside a question about her total worth. “I bet you know exactly how much you’re worth!” Piers shot back. “Yes I do,” she conceded. So how did she know? “Because I’d already counted it,” she said.
That was Piers’s mistake in having Oprah on for his very first episode. He doesn’t yet know how much he’s worth in this new chair at CNN. But Oprah knows exactly how much she’s worth, and it’s definitely more than this untested — if bright and charming — British import. The gap in confidence, even muffled as it was by flowers and soft lighting, was glaring.