Several months ago, backstage at a concert in Central Park, Larry King ran into CNN's former U.S. president Jonathan Klein, the executive who ended King’s 25-year prime-time reign to enthrone a pugnacious Brit who’d starred in a couple of reality shows.
“So you’re the guy who hired Piers Morgan, huh?” the then-80-year-old King teased the erstwhile cable news executive.
“He had no comment,” King told The Daily Beast on Sunday night, as news broke of his 48-year-old successor’s cancellation after three rocky years hosting Piers Morgan Live.
The bleak announcement—via Morgan’s exclusive interview with The New York Times’s media columnist, David Carr, an obvious attempt to cast an unhappy career move in a less-than-humiliating light—comes a few weeks before CNN’s current president, Jeff Zucker, must sell his vision of the beleaguered network’s future at the CNN upfront for advertisers.
King, 81, who hosts Larry King Now, a daily half-hour Web program for Ora TV—in which he has an equity stake—indicated he’d be willing to return to his previous perch at CNN, Jay Leno-like, if Zucker was interested. “If he talked to the people at Ora TV and they could work it out, I would do it,” he said. (The Suspendered One's program is also carried on Hulu and the Putin government-backed Russia Today television network.)
For Zucker, Morgan’s departure represents both an opportunity and a failure, and perhaps a huge relief after years of anemic ratings. For Klein, now an independent producer, it’s a not entirely unexpected disappointment. “I think he felt like he made a mistake,” Larry King recalled.
Klein, who was fired from CNN in the fall of 2010, shortly after announcing that Morgan would take over the all-important 9 p.m. slot, dismissed King’s stab at mind-reading. Instead, he argued in an interview that hiring Morgan—a former Fleet Street editor who’d become a fixture on British television and gained notoriety among U.S. viewers as a contestant on NBC’s The Apprentice and a judge on that same network’s America’s Got Talent—made eminent good sense to people in CNN’s executive suite.
“He was somewhat known to many millions of Americans, and he had some serious chops as a newsman,” Klein said. “What you needed to replace Larry King was someone who could interview presidents as well as pop stars. A lot of names popped up who could do one or the other, but very few could do both.”
With King’s once-dominant numbers rapidly eroding along with CNN’s overall ratings, and a perception by some that King was tired and phoning it in, the energetic Morgan offered a ray of hope. “He was aggressive. He had a clear point of view, and he could throw himself into this,” Klein said.
Klein said it was his idea to recruit Morgan, but during the Brit’s first face-to-face meeting with CNN’s leadership, he “blew away four people in the room,” including top execs Phil Kent, Jim Walton, and Ken Jautz (Klein’s initial successor), who all endorsed Klein’s plan. “The guy was phenomenal,” Klein said. “Phil and Jim signed off on him.”
So what went wrong?
In his interview with Carr, Morgan suggested that American viewers never grew comfortable with his unapologetic Britishness, and eventually wearied of his high-handed lectures about the evils of gun ownership, which began with the December 2012 massacre of 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and continued with increasing invective and volume for week after week.
Zucker, sensing an opportunity for “sizzle and buzz,” according to an insider, had initially encouraged Morgan’s rants, including a town hall, in which he began to resemble the crazed Howard Beale from Paddy Chayefsky’s movie Network. “He never recovered from that,” the insider told The Daily Beast. “Even gun-control advocates were turned off. He became a stereotype of the condescending, supercilious Brit.”
Others theorized that Morgan, though often an excellent interviewer—his riveting July 2012 facedown with troubled actor Robert Blake remains a classic—was never the sort of warm and user-friendly personality that viewers wanted to invite into their living rooms night after night. Instead, he was relentlessly combative and razor-tongued.
“Look, I am a British guy debating American cultural issues, including guns, which has been very polarizing, and there is no doubt that there are many in the audience who are tired of me banging on about it,” Morgan told Carr. “That’s run its course and Jeff [Zucker] and I have been talking for some time about different ways of using me.”
Morgan, who did not respond to an email for comment from The Daily Beast, acknowledged to Carr that “it’s been a painful period and lately we have taken a bath in the ratings.”
He was also disadvantaged by weak lead-ins, and even after Zucker installed Anderson Cooper at 8 p.m. with a more robust viewership, Morgan failed to hold the audience.
Larry King, for one, said his successor also suffered from a completely different drawback. “In truth, when someone is on the air for the amount of years I was on, whether it’s me or anyone, whoever replaces him, you don’t want to be the person who replaces him,” King said. “It’s very hard to step in—putting myself aside—into any shoes that have been there forever.”
King theorized that his audience was not necessarily transferrable to Morgan. “We were very different styles. I asked shorter questions. I left myself out of it. Piers is more of an ‘I’ interview style.”
He said of Morgan’s termination, “I’m not a programmer, I’m a broadcaster… But as he [Morgan] said, something about the British thing probably had something to do with it… I’m sorry. I never like to see anyone leave, but it’s a business where nothing is forever. It's transitory. Coaches are hired to be fired. I wish him well.”
Morgan’s future role at CNN, if any, was unclear as of Sunday night, though he told Carr he and Zucker have been discussing possibilities. Zucker, meanwhile, must quickly find someone—or something—to schedule at 9 p.m. If it isn’t Larry, “I love Chris Cuomo,” King kibitzed, mentioning the cohost of CNN’s New Day morning show. “I think he’s a prime-time talent, a very good interviewer, has a great manner, a beautiful voice, and looks good—plus he’s young.”
Morgan’s staff of around 30, including executive producer Jonathan Wald, are expected to stay at CNN, even if Morgan, the former top editor of News of the World and The Daily Mirror, ends up high-tailing it back to London. There, he has occasionally been compelled to testify before a parliamentary committee and give statements to investigators concerning the widespread phone-hacking scandal, in which he has consistently denied involvement.
“He’s indomitable,” Klein said, predicting that Morgan will bounce back from his CNN misadventure. “He’ll write a book about the experience, I’m sure.”