CNN: New faces, same game

Shows with Morgan, Parker, Spitzer to remain above fray

Despite its ongoing ratings woes, CNN said its new lineup won’t stray far from the news cabler’s playbook.

Its two new attempts at getting back into the game — “Parker/Spitzer” and the as-yet-untitled entry starring Piers Morgan — fit into CNN U.S. prexy Jon Klein’s strategy of “a lineup that is beholden to no particular side” and made up of “equal-opportunity tough questioners,” he said.

“You can’t find that in primetime network news,” said Klein. “They’re not in the tank for one side or the other.”

But CNN’s attempts to position itself as the straight-ahead, nonpartisan alternative in cable news has left the cabler’s primetime lineup lagging behind market leader Fox News and even MSNBC.

Now, at least, CNN is looking at a few unorthodox names to inject a little life into primetime.

Morgan’s hire came just a day after CNN announced an Oct. 4 start date for “Parker/Spitzer,” the debate show starring former N.Y. governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned his post after a prostitution scandal, and journo Kathleen Parker.

That series will premiere a week after MSNBC adds another primetime talker, hosted by Lawrence O’Donnell. That means both CNN and MSNBC are premiering shows in a window where they hope to cash in on heightened political interest heading into the mid-term election.

CNN needs both Morgan’s show (which bows in January) and “Parker/Spitzer” to hit. The net’s ratings have been on a steady downward slope, and in primetime it regularly ranks behind MSNBC in the key news demo and sometimes behind its own sister net, HLN.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Klein and Morgan said they believe they could attract viewers who perhaps aren’t watching TV news at the moment. But that’s also been CNN’s shortfall. While the uber-partisan fans of Fox News and MSNBC are a fairly loyal bunch, the viewers who tune into CNN for coverage of big events tune right back out once that coverage is done.

It will now be up to Morgan, as well as Parker and Spitzer, to figure out how to hold on to CNN’s fickle aud.

“You look at the population of the American audience, and there are hundreds of millions of people who don’t watch any TV at 9 p.m.,” Morgan said. “If you look at the total audience for television and you look at the audience for TV news, they’re two very different numbers. There are very, very large groups of people who watch ‘America’s Got Talent,’ who might be tempted to watch this. I’m not hoping to come second third or fourth, I’m here to come first. That’s the game plan.”

But Morgan steps in as Larry King, once the titan of primetime cable news, limps toward the finish line with some of the lowest ratings of his career.

Asked whether there’s still an audience for the kind of interview show that King (who hangs up his suspenders on Dec. 16) championed, Morgan pointed to his own experience in launching a new chat format in the U.K.

“In Britain we had the same debate,” Morgan said. “All the shows there had become Leno or Letterman. And I came up with a format that was an extended interview show… I’m convinced there’s a market here. I will bring a pretty provocative, mischievous, slightly cheeky style of interviewing people.”

How closely Morgan’s program will hew to King’s style remains to be seen; many critics have knocked King’s brand of low-key newsmaker talk as being at a disadvantage in the rough-and-tumble world of opinion-based cable news.

Despite the success of those loud shows, Morgan characterized the competition on Fox News and MSNBC as infighting narcissists.

Morgan’s interview style has been called everything from “honest” to “smug,” but it does tend to provoke a reaction: Morgan is celebrated abroad for an interview with Brit PM Gordon Brown in which Brown was moved to tears while answering a question about the death of his child.

Klein and Morgan said they’re already talking about changes to the King format and will spend the rest of the year putting the pieces together. Already, CNN confirmed that Morgan’s show will consist of a mix of live and taped broadcasts, in order to accommodate Morgan’s busy schedule.

That includes NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” where Morgan recently signed a three-year extension to remain as a judge. The new arrangement with the Peacock gave Morgan the flexibility to host a show for CNN. But “Talent” remains in first position, which means the cable news yakker will have to be worked around his “Talent” schedule.

Morgan is still in talks across the Pond on whether he’ll be back as a judge on “Britain’s Got Talent.” But he said he’ll continue to host “Piers Morgan’s Life Stories” for ITV.

It was Morgan’s turn on “Life Stories” that is believed to have caught the eye of CNN execs and led to the gig. The CNN show may even test out occasionally bringing in a studio audience much like the format on “Life Stories,” Morgan said.

Morgan’s program had been the subject a series of items in gossip pages for months now, with “Talent” exec producer Simon Cowell even telling London tabloids that he had a hand in making the deal work. Morgan will reportedly earn upwards of $5 million a year for the next three years in the job.

“Piers has made his name posing tough questions to public figures, holding them accountable for their words and deeds,” said CNN US prexy Jonathan Klein. “He is able to look at all aspects of the news with style and humor with an occasional good laugh in the process.”

The Morgan deal came just months after Klein hinted to both Broadcasting & Cable and online journal Mediaite that the cabler had “never negotiated with Piers,” and that “it’s not worth talking about.”

Asked why the net had continued to bother with secrecy and denial after months of very specific rumors, Klein said that the deal had taken a long time to complete.

He also maintained that King’s departure made Morgan’s hiring possible and not the other way around, though Morgan had been rumored for the slot long before King announced he was leaving his 9 p.m. post.

“(It was) that combination of a complex deal to make, and a very coveted slot that generated a lot of interest long before Larry had even thought about changing his schedule,” Klein said.

The British-born Morgan began working in the media at U.K. tabloid the Sun, where he was picked in 1994 by Rupert Murdoch to run that paper’s Sunday sister paper, News of the World, at the tender age of 28. Morgan also made his journalistic name in less auspicious ways, notably by publishing faked photos of U.K. soldiers abusing an Iraqi prisoner at his next post, U.K. tab the Daily Mirror, from which he was subsequently fired.

Morgan credited Cowell with helping resuscitate his career after that. Morgan was introduced to U.S. auds via “America’s Got Talent” and “Celebrity Apprentice,” which he won in 2008.

Morgan’s other credentials include hosting the BBC interview skeins “You Can’t Fire Me I’m Famous” and “Tabloid Tales.”