Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why Piers Morgan Tonight Should Become a Social Media Show

Piers Morgan Tonight is, if anything, nimble. But it is also at a new low in ratings, 77,000 viewers in the all-important A24-54 money demographic. Piers Morgan Tonight has fallen to fourth place behind Dr. Drew on HLN in that demo. Not a good look.

How did Piers fall so far behind?

Piers Morgan Tonight began as something of a continuation of the old Larry King formula for television: untaxing, pre-taped interviews with celebrities like Howard Stern and Condi Rice, who bring along solid fan bases and thus ratings. Morgan's first interview, with Oprah, was the show's peak with 2.99 million viewers. But the Larry King formula of softball sit-down interviews with stars is quite outdated in the age of blogs and reality train wrecks who are far more forthcoming about their own private lives (Isn't that why CNN gave King the hook in the first place? Isn't that why celebrity gossip magazines now feature train wreck's on their covers?).

As the media savvy Howard Stern told Piers during their interview (captured via NYMag), "The first week is great. You have Oprah, you have me. What's going to happen three months from now when you're interviewing Scott Baio? Who's gonna care?" Who indeed?

What, in fine, was Piers Morgan's post-Larry King strategy?

Then Came The Revolutions

Then came the revolutions in the Middle East and the Magreb, which gave CNN -- and every other news organization -- focus. International news and quite literally foreign news bureaus were in serious decline. That, and the strengthening lead-in by the hard hitting, news oriented In the Arena with Elliot Spitzer precipitated, perhaps more than anything, in Piers Morgan Tonight's evolution. The program, as a result, has gotten more newsy, much more smart and become more of an organic fit with the network's programming. And that's why I care about what happens to the program. Morgan even did a show on location in Israel in March the heat of the revolutionary fervor (Prime Minister Netanyahu was a guest). Something clearly was going on in the Arab world and it was a no-brainer that CNN, the global news network, should be on top of it.

But how?

Al Jazeera Got There First

If Piers Morgan Tonight is nimble, Al Jazeera English is beyond nimble -- it is the zeitgeist. Out of nowhere Al Jazeera English became the go-to platform for the revolutions in the Middle East and the Magreb, with a laser-like focus on relentless and fearless on-the-street reporting with people of all ages and occupations. By the end of January, Al Jazeera English occupied roughly the same position that CNN had during the First Persian Gulf War, when Patriot missiles looked not unlike video game weaponry on the screen.

In a few days at the beginning of the revolutions in January Al Jazeera English web traffic had increased 2,500 percent, sixty percent of which is coming from the United States. The demographically-challenged Piers Morgan Tonight should be aware of those numbers. At the time much was made of Al Jazeera's "CNN Moment" among the chattering classes. From the New York Times on January 31st:
Al Jazeera English, however, is indisputably unique. In recent days, the channel, an offshoot of the main Arabic-language Al Jazeera, has gained attention for its up-close, around-the-clock coverage of the protests in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities in Egypt.

While American television networks were scrambling to move reporters and producers into Cairo, the Al Jazeera channels were already there. The other networks have noticed: on the roundtable portion of ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Sam Donaldson looked at an Al Jazeera reporter and said, “Thank you for what you’re doing.”

OK, so Al Jazeera English has a good strategy for this revolutionary era. What about CNN? And what, more specifically, about Piers Morgan Tonight?

What Piers Morgan Tonight Can Learn from The Stream

A funny thing has happened to Piers Morgan Tonight in its evolutionary process in this revolutionary era. The show has, of late, been veering in a more "social" direction. There is the studio audience, which adds several elements to the show, not the least of which includes giving Piers crowd reactions to play off of, something he does well. There is also much conversation about Twitter on the show, much moreso that in its first few weeks.

Enter: The Stream, which is Al Jazeera's social experiment. "A hybrid of high-velocity online conversation and TV analysis, The Stream’s TV component will broadcast out of the Newseum, starting in May, four days a week," says Jared Keller at the Neiman Journalism Lab. "And it will be complemented by a continuous online operation that will mine the social media ecosystem for stories of global importance."

There are many things that Piers Morgan Tonight can learn from The Stream. The Stream is intelligent, informed, global, highly relevant and connected -- all of the things that CNN once was and that Piers Morgan Tonight aspires to be. Plus, The Stream is profoundly social. The CNN show should give a larger role to social media reporting, a larger role to their blog; Piers Morgan Tonight should become, essentially, a social media show. Social media reporting is a good way to build a community is a good way to bolster the meager 77,000 viewers in the all-important A24-54 demographic, which brings in higher ad revenues. Community feedback should be a major factor in the show's further evolution.

The Stream is a community that just happens to have its own TV show. Very new media, that. Maybe Piers Morgan should think about his program in this same manner, rather than the other way round. "These days, plenty of cable news shows tack on a social media component," writes Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post. "An anchor, perhaps, will read a few tweets before heading to commercial. But AJE is turning that model on its head. Wright, who was formerly a producer at CNN, described 'The Stream' as "social media show that just so happens to be on the television as well."

Social media, social media, social media

Steve Krakauer, who runs social media at the Piers Morgan Show, is a hugely competent guy (Full disclosure: Steve and I worked together at Mediabistro a while back) that ought to be given a much larger and more on-air role.

Further: rather than relying on the tried-and-true formulaic cable TV approach to segments, maybe Piers Morgan Tonight could take their topic cues directly from the online community. Less middle man, more direct interaction with the community to build engagement. CBS -- in that grand failed experiment "The Public Eye" -- briefly let members of the online community pick a segment on Friday nights. It was an brilliant idea spawned in desperation (CBS was, and still is, third in the ratings) that Piers Morgan should take to heart. Imagine how much more engaging it would be if the Piers Morgan online community could pick a story out a few choices offered several times a week?

Something to think about.

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