CNN names King’s heir

After months of speculation, CNN announced Wednesday that it had hired Piers Morgan, the British newspaper editor best known to U.S. audiences as a judge on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” to take over its 9 p.m. talk-show slot currently hosted by Larry King.

Hoping to bolster its flagging prime-time lineup, the Time Warner-owned network settled on Morgan after delicate and wide-ranging negotiations that cleared numerous obstacles, including the host’s visa status and his role on “America’s Got Talent,” which he is expected to continue. His still-untitled show will be based in New York but will sometimes air from Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Morgan is the latest addition to what’s shaping up as an overhaul of CNN’s weeknight programming. In October, the network will roll out a new 8 p.m. show with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer and columnist Kathleen Parker.

King, for years the anchor of CNN’s nightly lineup, announced earlier this year he would end “Larry King Live.” He’s expected to wrap the show in December, with Morgan starting in January.

“I’m hoping it’s going to be provocative, informative, revelatory, newsmaking,” Morgan said of his upcoming show in an interview Wednesday morning. “I think I interview people in a very distinctive way, which is probably quite different to American interviewers. And I think that’s why CNN brought me in.”

With Morgan, CNN is getting a brash former tabloid editor with a remarkable capacity for reinvention and a keen sense of the power of fame.

“Although the genre will be the same, the shows are going to be very different, because they’re going to reflect Piers’ background, his drive, his dynamism, life experience and his unique ability to probe and get surprising answers out of people you thought you knew,” said Jon Klein, the president of CNN/US.

Morgan tossed aside any notion that he might be unfamiliar with American news and culture. “I’ve been out for four or five months a year for the last five years and I’ve absolutely been electrified by American politics,” he said. “All these characters are, to me, fantastic interview material.”

Morgan has proved adroit at pushing interview subjects to share intimate details about their lives. In his column for the British edition of GQ, he got British politician Nick Clegg to confess he had slept with nearly 30 women and actress Helen Mirren to admit to taking cocaine.

“Morgan’s style of questioning, especially on matters of bereavement or illness, is akin to firing tear gas,” the UK’s The Observer wrote in June, noting that even former Prime Minister Gordon Brown grew teary when he was subjected to a Morgan interview.

His journalistic record comes with some controversy. In 2004, he was sacked as editor of the Daily Mirror in the UK after the paper published pictures that allegedly showed British troops abusing Iraqi prisoners. The photos were quickly exposed as fakes.

Real estate impresario Donald Trump, who cast Morgan in the 2008 celebrity edition of “The Apprentice,” which he won, said the Brit has more of an instinct to go for the jugular than King. That’s a characteristic he’s going to have to temper a bit on CNN, Trump added.

“When you do a show five or six nights a week, you can’t kill everybody, because you’re not going to get anybody to come on the show,” he said. “But Piers will have

a great take on it…. He’s going to know just how far to go.”

Such skills may help CNN draw attention back to its prime-time lineup, which has suffered severely at the hands of competitors Fox News and MSNBC.

At one time, King’s program was a regular stop for presidential candidates and top celebrities. But ratings for “Larry King Live” have eroded in recent years, along with those for Anderson Cooper and other CNN stars.

The network has increasingly found itself an also-ran in the cable news race. During August, CNN shed 46% of its prime-time viewers compared with a year ago, according to the Nielsen Co. MSNBC and Fox News, which have shifted to opinion and away from hard news during prime time, were also down but by much smaller amounts.