Eighteen months ago, Piers Morgan, famous for winding up anyone with a “woke” agenda, joked to a Royal Television Society conference of senior U.K. TV executives that he was “one vegan sausage-roll wrap from being fired.”
On Tuesday, after five years hosting flagship ITV show, “Good Morning Britain,” Morgan and ITV parted company. After losing his cool live on air during a row over Meghan Markle with a fellow presenter, Morgan stormed off set saying: “OK. I’m done with this.” He did return to complete the show, but the damage was done, and “Good Morning Britain” will continue minus its opinionated host.
Morgan is well known for his animosity towards Markle and Prince Harry, and until yesterday, ITV was happy to go along with their presenter’s anti-Sussex rants. But by declining to apologize over remarks he’d made challenging the veracity of the Duchess of Sussex’s remarks made to Oprah Winfrey that she’d suffered from suicidal thoughts, he’d crossed a red line.
And true to form, the former U.K. tabloid editor who once hosted a talk show for CNN is unrepentant. On Wednesday, he spoke to reporters outside his home: “If I have to fall on my sword for expressing an honestly-held opinion about Meghan Markle and that diatribe of bilge that she came out with in that interview, so be it.”
So does Morgan’s departure have any implications for ITV, whose finances have been hit hard by the pandemic, and which is attempting to play catch-up with the likes of Netflix?
On Tuesday, ITV CEO Carolyn McCall, announcing the company’s annual results, said that green shoots of recovery were visible as annual broadcast revenues fell by 8%, with total advertising down 11%. Steady ad growth is expected from April, but some analysts remain sceptical as ITV continues to pivot for the on-demand era.
“All in all, there are a lot of spinning plates at ITV, and most of them aren’t in the best shape,” noted Sophie Lund-Yates, an analyst at U.K. investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown. “That means the group’s financial resilience is important. ITV has access to significant liquidity and, for now, net debt is under control.
“But with earnings taking a hit, this is something we’re keeping a close eye on. Not just because interest payments can quickly become onerous, but also that ITV’s ability to borrow depends on it,” said Lund-Yates.
Unlike ITV’s bottom line, “Good Morning Britain” has thrived during the health crisis. Ratings have risen and the show has won new fans thanks to Morgan’s aggressive criticism of the U.K. government’s often bungled response to the deadly spread of coronavirus.
Within ITV, executives are keeping their heads down as the fallout from the royal row dominates international news agendas.
They will be thrilled that the Oprah interview generated a ratings bonanza — some 11.3 million tuned in — but will also be aware of any reputational damage that Morgan’s assault on Markle’s character could do to the company.
All eyes will be on how ITV decides to replace Morgan on “Good Morning Britain.”
“It’s a big space to fill because Piers turned up as a rogue guest host back in 2015, but his personality came to define the show,” says broadcaster Caroline Frost. “‘Good Morning Britain’ has become ‘The Piers Show,’ which has increasingly been snapping at the heels of the BBC’s breakfast show (the market leader).”
Morgan has a track record of walking out on big gigs. “He is hugely annoying, but he does have integrity,” adds Frost. “Piers left CNN after a huge battle over gun control. He never goes quietly and he never apologizes.”
But could Morgan’s departure be a blessing in disguise for ITV? Last month, the network defended him over a bullying row when 1,200 U.K. TV freelancers and executives signed an open letter to ITV accusing him of bullying former colleague, Adeel Amini, on Twitter.
However, ITV’s actions in the wake of the death of George Floyd last year suggest that its corporate agenda is a deal more progressive than Morgan’s.
Last August, ITV upped diversity head, Ade Rawcliffe, to its board and in September paid for full-page newspaper advertisements supporting a Black Lives Matter-inspired dance routine performed on ITV’s “Britain’s Got Talent” by dance troupe Diversity, despite thousands of viewer complaints about the performance.
The broadcaster has also had to think long and hard about how it supports mental health in light of the suicides of “Love Island” cast members and host Caroline Flack.
“Piers’ departure is a win for ITV because he’s walked and they haven’t had to remove him,” says Kenton Allen, who runs the ITV-owned production company Big Talk.
“Whatever he’s achieved in terms of building audiences for ‘Good Morning Britain’ has become unsustainable. The values of ITV as a public service broadcaster are not aligned with what he’s been doing.”
Allen adds: “In the short term, there is the problem of who they replace him with. They need someone who can walk the fine line that ‘Good Morning Britain’ treads — holding power to account, generating headlines and clickbait — while being faithful to their PSB remit.”
And, perhaps, someone who is more in tune with modern Britain.
As for Morgan? He is likely to sign up for one of the two new, right-of-center news services being planned in the U.K. — GB News and News UK TV. There, he will be paid handsomely for his opinions, however polarizing many of them may be.