Tuesday, September 6, 2011

CNN rediscovers its voice

Posted by Greg Matusky
Last October, I did the unthinkable for a PR person. I ripped the media. More precisely, I ripped my beloved CNN. In that post, I explained my own admiration and exasperation for a declining network that had jump-started my career and served as a worthy platform for client appearances and sparring sessions for some 25 years.

I bemoaned CNN's loss of relevancy as exemplified by the ill-fated "Parker Spitzer," a dead zone of poor chemistry and pontification by disgraced New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. At the time, I held out hope that the network could regain its voice and Piers Morgan would look the part in wearing Larry King's crown.

My hope has been rewarded. Over the past year, CNN cut ties with Parker and Spitzer and expanded the roles of thought provocateurs Cooper, Velshi, and Gupta. Most surprisingly, they scored big with Piers Morgan, who is now showing himself to be a worthy successor to the King.

To me, Morgan is the biggest story and perhaps the most exciting new voice on any news network. If you didn't see it last week, you missed an incredible interview with Rick Santorum that made the far-right candidate for president squirm and sweat, reducing him to a seeming impersonation of the "The Office's" Michael Scott.



Morgan's not afraid to ask tough questions and then let them lay out on the table as if he's on a bad blind date in order to survey the response. He's a confident interviewer who doesn't need to color the questions with his own opinions or commit the ultimate sin of showing off his own intelligence through the construction of his questions. (Spitzer was famous for that, resulting in his interviewing himself but strangely never asking about Ashley Dupré.)

Personally, I just love the way Morgan cuts off his question and stares at his guest. It's gutsy and gooey and the stuff that leads people to say and do weird things. Like prompting Tea Partier Christine O'Donnell to storm off the set for Piers asking questions she had been asked hundreds of times before. I think that says it all.



While it took a little time to gain land legs (his early interview with the Kardashians was an embarrassment and his recent show absolving CNN of over-hyping Hurricane Irene was self-serving and congratulatory), his recent celebrity interview of Russell Brand was hysterical. He gave the comedian the full runway -- showing Brand to be ingratiating, intelligent, sickeningly sweet for wife Katy Perry, and probably manic or depressive, depending on the day.



Brand revealed a funny and complex cockney world view, which could land him in the looney bin or a series of pay-per-view HBO specials. No doubt Brand would have embarrassed or shut down a lesser interviewer. Morgan withstood the maelstrom gloriously by turning over the stage and ever so gently nudging the train back on the track before it took out the entire town.

Morgan also does his homework. His political interviews are grounded on policy and fact. He claimed to have read Rick Santorum's wife's book in the run up to the interview and called Santorum's deceased son by his first name. Larry King, while an effective interviewer, always bragged about his lack of prep, which was embarrassing when he asked Eric Clapton about his 1960's super group, The Cream.

Morgan, on the other hand, has a firm grip of the contemporary that drives interest, and it seems like I am not alone in my analysis. His ratings were up in July, more than 30 percent for his target demo. August should be even stronger, thanks to Hurricane Irene coverage.

As I noted last October, CNN is an important center voice that balances the bullshit and bluster of Faux News and MS Can't Believe. With Eliot Spitzer, the network leaned too far to the same tiresome formula -- piss people off by reading DNC and RNC talking points to win the angry and malcontent.

Piers Morgan, however, is showing there's still room for a lively mix of politics and policy along with the celebrities and personalities that feed our guilty pleasures. In short, he's got voice and the rest of the network is harmonizing. I hope more audiences listen in.
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