Piers Morgan extends time on 'America's Got Talent' and is poised to take Larry King's CNN chair
Morgan, the British journalist best known in the U.S. as a judge on NBC's "America's Got Talent," just struck a new three-year deal to stay on the program, where he serves alongside Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel. In the meantime, the deal will free him to negotiate to replace Larry King in CNN's coveted 9 p.m. Eastern berth, according to sources familiar with the situation. Last month, King announced he would retire after 25 years on "Larry King Live."
Morgan has been rumored for weeks as a possible replacement for King, but his NBC deal had been a major sticking point. Under the terms of the new contract, Morgan's duties for "America's Got Talent" will take precedence over any responsibilities he will have at CNN. The show has been a staple of NBC's summer lineup since 2006.
Networks seldom release talent to work for other outlets, and talent-sharing arrangements are rarer still, CNN's Anderson Cooper and PBS' Charlie Rose being notable exceptions. One factor that helped sweeten the deal for NBC was that Turner Broadcasting, CNN's parent company, offered NBC some financial concessions on other deals involving the two companies.
The King show was during the 1990s a major stop for political candidates and other newsmakers -- Ross Perot's appearances during his 1992 presidential bid were particularly closely watched -- but the program's fortunes have lately fallen, along with the rest of CNN's prime-time lineup.
CNN executives have been impressed with the interviewing chops of Morgan, who's a household name in Britain and hosts "Piers Morgan's Life Stories" there. His profile has risen in the U.S. as well, thanks in part to his 2008 appearance on "Celebrity Apprentice." However, he is not without controversy; in 2004, he was sacked from his post as editor of the Daily Mirror after the paper ran photos of British soldiers abusing Iraqi detainees; the pictures were later revealed to be fakes.
Assuming Morgan does get the CNN job, he will have beat out several other rumored candidates with even higher U.S. profiles, including King's handpicked successor, "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest. CBS anchor Katie Couric and talk host Joy Behar were also floated as candidates.
Whoever sits in the chair, the stakes are high. CNN needs to deliver a hit at 9 p.m., as it has suffered deep audience erosion in prime time since the 2008 election while its longtime nemesis, Fox News Channel, continues to fly high. The Time Warner-owned network is in the midst of a major overhaul of its lineup; fall will bring a new show co-hosted by disgraced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and conservative columnist Kathleen Parker.
CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein insisted last month that the network was not in negotiations with Morgan, which technically was true due to his NBC deal. "There are any number of talented people out there," Klein said at the time.
The choice of Morgan may surprise American viewers, who only know him for his acerbic comments on “America’s Got Talent.” But he is well-known to British viewers as an interviewer who is not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. For each episode of “Life Stories,” he devotes an hour to talking to a single celebrity guest in front of a studio audience. Guests have included Sharon Osbourne, his judging partner on “America’s Got Talent,” longtime friend Simon Cowell and, perhaps most memorably, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown and his wife both wept on the show as they talked about the death of their 10-day-old daughter from a brain hemorrhage and the challenges facing their young son, who has cystic fibrosis.
Morgan, in fact, has a track record of reducing guests to tears. According to the Daily Mail, model Katie Price cried when she told him about being sexually assaulted as a child and TV host Cilla Black “sobbed” when talking about the death of her premature daughter. [Updated at 6:59 p.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly gave Katie Price's last name as Brown.]
-- Matea Gold and Scott Collins
Photo: Piers Morgan on "America's Got Talent." Credit: NBC