Is Piers Morgan CNN's Savior? So Far, at Least, the Answer Is No

Piers Morgan is no Larry King: His ratings have fallen below that of his predecessor in his first two weeks on the air.
Piers Morgan is no Larry King: His ratings have fallen below that of his predecessor in his first two weeks on the air.

After CNN aggressively promoted the show for months, Piers Morgan Tonight debuted -- with Oprah Winfrey as its first guest -- to an audience of more than 2.1 million two weeks ago. But the program's ratings have fallen off a cliff since then, declining more than 60% in both its total audience and its target demographic of viewers between 25 and 54 years old.

The ratings decline, although expected, underscores the challenges facing the Time Warner (TWX) channel as it competes against Fox News and MSNBC. For example, CNN President Jon Klein -- who called U.K.-born Piers Morgan a "natural fit" for the network's Larry King replacement back in September -- was fired less than a month after announcing the new hire.

Also, Morgan's ratings so far rank below King's ratings for the same period a year ago. Some claim the comparison is unfair: After all, in January 2010, King drew a big audience when he hosted a telethon for the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

But CNN's ratings this year have been boosted by surging interest in news in the Middle East. Regardless, any sustained decline in ratings may anger advertisers, whose purchases of commercial time are based on audience guarantees. Failing to meet these targets usually means that a network will have to provide free commercial time, also known as "make goods".

Its Best Shot

It seems unlikely, though, that the ratings have become an issue yet. And Morgan appears to be in no danger of immediate cancellation.

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The network, which declined to comment, is giving the show its best shot. Katie Thomson, a former booker for Barbara Walters, has joined the Piers Morgan Tonight as its senior producer. And CNN's prime-time ratings have improved somewhat with Keith Olbermann's departure from MSNBC (50% growth in total viewers and 65% growth in the target demographic).

In an interview with DailyFinance, Horizon Media's Brad Adgate notes that the network has little choice but to be patient considering that the 9 p.m. time slot is among the most competitive in television. "It's not great... (But) I don't think they are hitting the panic button yet," he says. "The sooner [the viewership decline] plateaus, the better for the network. ... This is going to be a long haul."

Of course, Piers Morgan Tonight is hardly CNN's only challenge. Parker Spitzer, which debuted in October to scathing reviews, has also proved to be a ratings disappointment. As The New York Times reported in December: "The show has been troubled by backstage tensions that have spilled out in gossip columns and have given rise to speculation -- and some wishful thinking among his supporters -- that CNN could make [former New York Gov. Eliot] Spitzer the sole host." In the story, CNN executives denied it was considering such a move.

Unrealistic Expectations

Expectations for Morgan may have been unrealistically high. Larry King Live was the backbone of CNN's prime-time lineup for 30 years, an eternity in television. Morgan's style is far different than King's, who -- unlike Morgan -- would probably never pick fights with his rivals on Twitter.

The best that CNN can realistically hope for is to raise Morgan's ratings to "somewhat in line with what Larry King was doing," according to Adgate. And that's, of course, only possible if Piers Morgan Tonight catches on.

Like his suspender-loving predecessor, Morgan tries to be topical. Within the target demo, his best-rated show was his Jan. 18 broadcast with Howard Stern, which attracted 551,000 viewers in the target age range -- 6% more than the debut broadcast with Winfrey the night before. The Stern show's attracted a total of 1.3 million viewers, second only to Oprah.

But ever since then, Piers Morgan Tonight's viewership has eroded steadily, reaching a low of 498,000 total audience -- and 164,000 in the target demo -- on Jan. 27, when two of the Khardashian sisters were his guests.