He’s famous for being Britain’s youngest national newspaper editor in over 50 years, getting punched in the face by Jeremy Clarkson, reducing dozens of contestants on America’s Got Talent to tears, and winning the US celebrity version of The Apprentice. Can Piers Morgan save CNN?
It was a perfect story for the UK’s Daily Mirror – walk around New York’s Times Square, show people a picture of British Prime Minister David Cameron and ask them to guess who it is, take down names and relevant details when they don’t get it right. The response of MTV producer Melissa France, 28, must’ve been just what the Mirror’s editors were after. “Is it Piers Morgan?” asked France. “He has the same dress sense and hairstyle. He has a know-it-all look about him too, like Piers Morgan.”
The point of the piece, of course, was to show through extensive research (at least 10 interviews) that Americans wouldn’t recognise the head-of-state of their country’s closest ally on the eve of his first official visit to the White House. But the Mirror’s header – “Who is this guy? Piers Morgan?” – suggested a more revealing subtext: the former editor of the very paper in which the article appeared was now on the cusp of the sort of global fame reserved for the likes of Oprah, Barbara and Katie.
As the Mirror readers would’ve known, Morgan, the nasty judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, was in negotiations to take over Larry King’s prime-time slot on international news network CNN.
Life didn’t begin this illustriously for Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan. The youngest of four children, his father died when he was one year old. His artist mother brought him up with the help of her own mother, and Piers went to middle-of-the-road schools and a middle-of-the-road journalism college before taking a job as a reporter on a community newspaper. His break came when he was recruited (Piers uses the word “headhunted”) by legendary Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie to work on the paper’s “Bizarre” column.
By 1994, when he was 28, Morgan had shown such an aptitude for luring readers with tales of the lurid and sensational that he’d caught the attention of Rupert Murdoch, who hired him to edit the tabloid News of the World. He was the youngest editor of a British national newspaper in more than 50 years, and he acted his age – his disrespect for authority and the rights of celebrities to their own privacy soon earned him editorship of the Daily Mirror, where he made an even bigger name for himself by running the headline “Achtung! Surrender” a day before the Euro ’96 semi-final clash between England and Germany.
Morgan survived a breach of the code of conduct on financial journalism in 2000 – he bought shares in a company that his paper later punted – but was fired from the Mirror in 2004 for publishing hoax photographs showing British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. That same year, at the British Press Awards, Jeremy Clarkson punched him in the face (the beef, apparently, was about some personal details a naïve Clarkson didn’t want divulged).
Two years later, Morgan’s career in television took off. His mate Simon Cowell chose him as a replacement judge on America’s Got Talent, and he quickly set about reducing the contestants to tears. In 2007 he appeared on Comic Relief Does The Apprentice, where he made fashion designer Trinny Woodall cry. In 2008, on the US celebrity version of The Apprentice, he fought with everyone – though most vehemently with Steven Baldwin and Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth – and yet won the contest anyway. In fact he’s so good on TV that he now has a handful of his own shows in Britain, including Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, where he’s done no-holds-barred interviews with the likes of Gordon Brown and (his mate) Simon Cowell.
So it’s not hard to guess why CNN wants him. As The Daily Maverick and pretty much everyone else have been reporting, the Atlanta-based news broadcaster has been suffering an identity crisis for quite some time. What Morgan offers is personality, in spades. It’s also being reported that the network will be adding Eliot Spitzer, disgraced former governor of New York, to its prime-time line-up. You can see where they’re going with this.
Morgan will apparently earn between $6 million and $8 million a year for his efforts. It seems a deal has been worked out with NBC, and he’ll stay on as a judge on America’s Got Talent. The New York Daily News observes that this could leave CNN in a bind on nights when news breaks, but what they obviously care about more is the ratings: during the second quarter of 2010, Fox News led the pack with an average of 1.9 million prime-time viewers, MSNBC came in with 758,000, and CNN could only manage 594,000.
If Piers Morgan could make, say, Paris Hilton cry during Larry King’s old slot, that should all change.
By Kevin Bloom
Photo: Piers Morgan poses for photographers as he arrives for the Brit Awards at Earls Court, in London February 18, 2009. REUTERS/Andrew Winning
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