TV review: CNN's fawning, overhyped "Piers Morgan Tonight"

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 12:13 AM

If you've been watching CNN at all in the last few weeks (and who's to say you have?), then you probably got your fill of British TV personality Piers Morgan long, long before the first episode of "Piers Morgan Tonight" debuted on the network Monday evening, thanks to an unstoppable mudflow of hype and ads.

Morgan, 45, has been touted as a take-no-prisoners Fleet Street tough-guy tabloid journalist with a towering intellect and keen powers to access to the most important people in the world. Plus, he's got a British accent, the ultimate lure.

But after all that buildup, Morgan's first show turned out to be a fawning and completely unnecessary interview with a successful businesswoman named Oprah Winfrey. It was a droning, previously recorded hour (Morgan has said he prefers to do taped interviews) on a network in desperate need of a newsy, dynamic talk show. The goal was to replace "Larry King Live" with something better, right? That might turn out to be harder than any of us would have guessed.

Winfrey was touted as the biggest possible "get" for a show's first guest. Then, speaking to a TV reporter, she bestowed a soundbite bauble upon Morgan, calling her interview with him "one of the toughest" she's ever been through. CNN played that clip approximately 8.3 million times in the last few days, further eroding the devotion of even its most patient viewers.

Hey, CNN: Winfrey said it was one of the toughest interviews she's ever given. One of. You should know Oprahspeak when you hear it. It means nothing, except to the Piers Morgan marketing team, who have been tasked with convincing us that he's the smartest, most connected man alive.

Rubbish, as Morgan's countrymen might say. Winfrey is a great get but a lousy interview, unless you're taking notes for a new line of inspirational greeting cards. Morgan's interview with Winfrey made Barbara Walters's interview with her last month look like a performance of "Frost/Nixon." There is nothing left to ask Oprah Winfrey that Oprah Winfrey hasn't already answered, and anyhow, Oprah will fill the space with proclamations about her divine mission: "I am here to deliver the message of hope and redemption," and so on. (The only thing left to ask her is if she'll give us a free trip somewhere. )

At one point early in the program, Morgan actually asked Winfrey to touch him. "Everything you touch is a hit," he told her - and so she reached out and touched him. "I've got a hit, I've got a hit," Morgan said. "Oprah touched me."

Well, we shall see.

Not only was Winfrey an uninteresting guest, her presence skews an attempt to judge whether Morgan's show will be any good.

Tuesday night's show promises to at least resemble what "Piers Morgan Tonight" might become on an average night: Howard Stern will be the guest and the interview (though also pre-taped) will take place on Morgan's very Windows XP-looking set, a blue-hued realm of colored squares floating in space. (Larry King's Lite-Brite map and black walls are all but a fond memory now.)

Later this week, Morgan will interview (or already has interviewed) Condoleezza Rice and then George and Nick Clooney. On Friday, he'll talk to Ricky Gervais, whose Golden Globe Awards hosting gig on Sunday was either the most brilliant bit of postmodern Hollywood humor or an unfunny flop. (Jury still out.)

On the plus side, I still like the idea of "Piers Morgan Tonight" - entrusting the nightly synthesis of American zeitgeist and the celebrity need to share to an outsider who would presumably be less reverent and more probing. I would like to see what someone like Morgan would do with the shlocky diet of news and intrigue that intravenously sustained Larry King all those years - such as when a beloved celebrity is tragically killed or accused of a crime as heinous as shoplifting. The first taste of "Piers Morgan Tonight" - indeed, the week's lineup - suggests something much more salon-oriented and reserved.

If we had all the time in the world to wait for Morgan to find his niche, then there would be no problem. But as we all know, cable news shows get mere nanoseconds to turn us on.

The plugging and PR for Morgan's show reached a nadir in the final hours before its debut, when CNN's other anchors - Blitzer, Spitzer, Blinkin' and Blonde - were made to interview Morgan about his godly debut. Blitzer asked Morgan what famous people would be on his all-time wish list of "gets." (Morgan said the answer is plain: Prince William and his fiancee Kate Middleton, and he intimated that this would come to pass, since he knows the prince so well.)

Morgan then returned a serving of syrup, telling Blitzer that "you are one of my all-time journalistic heroes." Blitzer demurred and then noted that Monday marked a great moment in CNN's present and past - 20 years to the day that the world tuned into the network to watch the 1991 bombing of Iraq in the Gulf War.

Unfortunately, that had the net effect of making us think too much of an entirely different CNN, in an entirely different era.

Piers Morgan Tonight (one hour) airs weeknights at 9 p.m. on CNN.

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