‘Piers Morgan Tonight’ Sputters in CNN Debut

Rupert Murdoch supposedly wished his old employee Piers Morgan well, but not too much success in his new gig on CNN. The News Corp. chairman, ever mindful of Fox News’ profits, needn’t have worried.

“Piers Morgan Tonight” is the second holdover from CNN’s former management, and to say the show’s debut was more polished than “Parker-Spitzer” is hardly an unqualified endorsement. Instead, Morgan was so deferential in his hour-long chat with Oprah Winfrey that the adjective she used to describe his interviewing skills — “Surprising” — seemed very generous indeed. “Boring” would be more accurate.

Morgan — known as an interviewer in the U.K., and an “America’s Got Talent” judge in the U.S. — didn’t really press Winfrey on any front. Sure, he asked some questions about her personal life, her wealth, her role in campaigning for Barack Obama, but he let her prattle on about her “mission” and larger purpose without any mention of the messianic terms she regularly uses to discuss herself and her media empire.

To her credit, Winfrey — in saying she was in no way disappointed with Obama’s presidency — reminded Morgan that there’s a “learning curve” in any job, and it would be unfair to judge him based strictly on this first program. But other than laughing too hard at her jokes and being generally pleasant, it’s hard to see how this is any improvement over what Larry King was doing in the timeslot, other than being about three decades younger.

The front-loaded lineup of first-week guests includes Howard Stern, Ricky Gervais and George Clooney. But any nightly (or daily) show of this kind is only as good as its host, and if this is the template, Morgan won’t offer much reason to tune in on nights when he has lesser newsmakers.

The premiere, notably, went up against about as partisan a night on CNN’s cable rivals as you’re apt to find: Sean Hannity sitting in Sarah Palin’s lap (not quite literally) on Fox News’ “Hannity,” while Rachel Maddow hosted Michael Moore to discuss gun-control legislation on MSNBC. Hannity pitched softballs at Palin for a full half-hour, before segueing to Michael Reagan to criticize his brother’s book about their father.

For hard-core conservatives, that’s the equivalent of having Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig in your lineup.

 It would be lovely if CNN had the smarts to offer a legitimate alternative to those political poles, but based on first impressions, “Piers Morgan” isn’t it.



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