NEW YORK--After spending two hours dining with Piers Morgan, two things are clear: he loves Twitter, and he loves to talk, mainly about himself and Twitter.
Morgan and a handful of CNN executives and journalists convened in the back room of the Landmarc restaurant in Columbus Circle here on Friday to celebrate the celebrity interviewer's first year as Larry King's primetime replacement. Morgan spoke candidly on a wide-range of topics (politics, Twitter, phone-hacking, 50 Cent, Piers Morgan, Twitter). But the bulk of discussion focused on the challenges of adapting his British brand to American viewers, the cutthroat race for ratings on cable news, and some planned changes to the show that will sound familiar to fans of Fox News and the Daily Show.
"I love Bill O'Reilly and I love Jon Stewart," Morgan said, his face caked in makeup for an interview taping with Rosie O'Donnell scheduled immediately after the meal. "It doesn't matter who their guests are--you tune in to watch them."
Morgan and CNN are hoping to inject more of the former's British humor into "Piers Morgan Tonight," a show that has, to this point, been dependent on high-profile guest bookings and global breaking news.
"We've been at the mercy of bookings," Morgan, 46, said between bites of a Caesar salad. "We want viewers to tune in because of me and the show. We want to showcase more of my personality."
And Morgan is very fond of O'Reilly's personality. "'Pinheads and Patriots' always makes me laugh," he said, adding that they are at the early stages of adding similar segments to his show. "I think you'll start to see a lot more writing."
The former tabloid editor pointed out he writes a regular "diary" for the Daily Mail, and that he hopes to bring more "mischievous," "humorous" and "provocative" opinion to the 9 p.m. hour.
That infusion of opinion--combined with CNN's goal of having Morgan interview all of the 2012 presidential candidates, including Barack Obama--might seem at odds with CNN's nonpartisan approach to programming, but Morgan and his producers don't see it that way.
"There's a big difference between point of view and opinion," said Jonathan Wald, the show's executive producer. "You can ask informed question, and not have it be a political stance."
"I can be opinionated without being partisan," Morgan said. "I should be giving all politicians a hard time."
That approach seemed to work with Christine O'Donnell, the former Republican Congresswoman who walked out of an interview with Morgan last August, leading to a jolt in ratings. "If we could have that once a week, it would be great," he said. (While Morgan drew 25 percent more 25-to-54-year-old viewers in 2011 than King did in 2010, "Piers Morgan Tonight" was stuck behind MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and FNC's Sean Hannity in its timeslot.)
Morgan is keenly aware of his 1.7 million follower count on Twitter--he mentioned it numerous times during lunch, and how he's #2 on television behind Anderson Cooper--and how to leverage it for ratings.
"When I tweeted 'How good does Jane Fonda look?' we saw this huge spike," Morgan said. "Was it a coincidence? Perhaps. But during an hour-long show, unlikely."
He added: "If we could get my 1.7 million followers to watch every night, we'd be right there" with his rivals. Morgan's program averaged 720,000 total viewers a night in 2010.
Recently, the show has been booking guests with big Twitter follower-counts in an effort to boost ratings. One such guest, Bruno Mars, was booked for that reason. "Would we have booked him if he wasn't on Twitter?" Morgan said. "Honestly, probably not."
Morgan boasted that he often does his own bookings through Twitter. "I got Alec Baldwin purely because we chat on Twitter," he said. Morgan lauded Baldwin's tweets as "dangerous," but "much more real." Other celebrities' feeds don't earn his respect. "I hate it when they tweet about their charitable work," Morgan said. "Give me a f---ing rest."
Twitter influence aside, Jack Nicholson is at the top of Morgan's list of dream guests. "How great would that be?" Morgan said. "He's never done a sit-down." At least, not on TV.
On the topic of phone-hacking, Morgan, a former editor at News of the World and Daily Mirror, called his involvement in the investigation "an unnecessary distraction," but admitted the Leveson Inquiry "couldn't not call me--I was too juicy [a] high profile bone not to drag into it."
One outcome of the phone-hacking scandal he hopes to see is more distance between the British press and politicians. "When I was the editor of the Mirror, I had 56 meetings with Tony Blair," he said. "In retrospect, that seems a bit unnecessary, and a waste of time." The relationship between Fleet Street and Downing Street, he said, "got a little bit too cozy."
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