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Piers Morgan: the Brit who would be (Larry) King opens with Oprah

Ed Pilkington in New York

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7 January 2011

Mirror editor turned talent judge heads for US top slot as CNN looks to revive ratings

"So, it's Oprah!" Piers Morgan announced to a packed room of 200 TV journalists waiting with bated breath to learn the identity of his first interviewee on his new CNN chat show.

Judging from the reaction on Twitter and in US papers, the attending TV critics were so awestruck by Morgan's choice of Oprah Winfrey for the premiere on January 17 they nearly fell asleep.

It didn't help that Winfrey — billed by Morgan as the "biggest celebrity in the world" — was about to address the same roomful of TV journalists, to whom she would ramble on for two hours about her inner life. Or that Barbara Walters had recently had a one-hour primetime interview with her. Or that Oprah's been doing the rounds publicising her new TV Channel, OWN, talking to anyone who will listen.

"These days you have to fend off Oprah with a club," noted the Washington Post's TV critic Lisa de Moraes.

However well, or badly, Piers Morgan Tonight fares in its new home in the legendary Larry King Live slot at 9pm on weekdays, no one will be able to accuse the former editor of the Mirror of having not made the effort. He is even finding the time to have prolonged Twitter spats with New York TV personalities, quoting Shakespeare at them.

In the run-up to the launch, Morgan has been ubiquitous, popping up all over the place to promote the show. In an interesting experiment in TV navel gazing, CNN's white-haired poster boy, Anderson Cooper, interviewed Morgan, and then Morgan interviewed him.

The advance puff heavily emphasises Morgan's ability to make grown men cry, pointing to Gordon Brown and Simon Cowell as examples. The paradox can not be lost on Brown: having failed to convince British voters to back him, he has now been enlisted in Morgan's campaign to conquer America.

"I like it when things are surprising," Morgan says, describing his perfect TV interview. "And engender passion, whether tears, laughter or anger." As a long-standing friend of X Factor judge Simon Cowell, he knew that Cowell's father had died on the same day as he had his first big Number 1 hit with Westlife, and asked him about it. "It wasn't easy, you really have to push him."

How often he can repeat such memorable TV moments is Morgan's challenge. He must pull off a trick – almost impossible to achieve in America's hyper-controlled celebrity market – of extracting newsworthy content from public figures while not deterring future subjects from coming on the show.

Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast and Newsweek, who is hosting a launch party for Morgan at her home in New York next week, predicts he can.

In America, she pointed out, Morgan is still seen as pure entertainment, the America's Got Talent guy. "But he's actually a rambunctious and popular journalist with a great story sense and big curiosity – which, in my view, is the definition of a great TV host."

Much is riding on the success or failure of the Morgan formula.

According to an advance blurb, the new show will be: "Unpredictable. Lively. Challenging. Fun."

But will it revive CNN's ratings?

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