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CNN's State of the Union coverage highlights its problems with Piers Morgan and Eliot Spitzer



piers-morgan_320.jpgLike many smart alecks on Twitter, I let go a snarky comment the moment CNN's new prime time franchise opened his mouth after the President's State of the Union speech Tuesday.

My observation: that it was odd to see new 9 p.m. interviewer Piers Morgan at the pundits' table when the one ex-elected official employed by the newschannel, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, was nowhere to be found. (I mean, if you're going to snark off the TV industry by hiring a neophyte as one of your lead primetime anchors, you should at least get some milage out of him) 

But the remark also reminded me of something else.

When Morgan's predecessor Larry King appeared after big speeches, he was never on a panel trading sage observations with a baseball team-size field of commentators. He was on his own set, asking other experts what their opinions were of what just happened.

That, in a small nutshell, is what separates old from new. King mostly asked other people what they thought; Morgan has no problems telling you what he thinks. Again and again.

Smart critics have waited awhile to weigh in on his new CNN show Piers Morgan Tonight, mostly because they knew his first interview -- taped outside his regular studio with media queen Oprah Winfrey -- would hardly be representative. But in the days since, Morgan has sat down with Howard Stern, Ricky Gervais and George Clooney as a showbiz equal. The sense you get is of two brands meeting, not a surrogate for the viewer asking questions the audience might ask if they were smart enough and had the opportunity.

Not to say that Morgan isn't a good interviewer. In particular, his just-us-Brits-hanging attitude with Gervais eventually highlighted how much of the controversy over the comic's Golden Globes hosting performance just might be the cultural differences between Yanks and the English. (and the photo he unearthed of Gervais as a Spandau Ballet-style wannabe musician in the '80s was priceless)

But he is sometimes so busy making his own points, he fails to listen to his subjects -- the biggest mistake celebrity interviewers make (I think, because it's hard for performers sometimes to focus on someone else). And I think hourlong interviews need a shape of sorts -- a narrative path that starts in one place and ends in another -- so we can feel like we've taken a journey with the subject and interviewer.

Still, Morgan has a knack for picking buzzed-about subjects for his interviews, which will guarantee viewer attention for a while. He has proven a much less incisive interviewer than advertised, which keeps celebrities from being afraid to go on his program, even as he poses like a tough guy in promotional ads.

And he couldn't have been handed a biggest gift than Keith Olbermann's defection from MSNBC, which leaves some fans trying to decide how they feel about a rival channel just as Morgan is trying to keep the momentum his highly-hyped debut provided.

Morgan is a smart enough competitor that he'll be a contender, regardless of his flaws. But CNN's State of the Union coverage Tuesday showed the problems in its recent approach, where its 8 p.m. anchors were absent and the 9 p.m. guy was a bit player in the biggest news story of the week.

Can a channel with a storied brand focused on news coverage really afford that?

[Last modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 5:08pm]


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