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Updated Feb 8, 2024, 1:59pm EST
mediabusinessUK

Piers Morgan is pivoting to digital

Piers Morgan leaves BBC Broadcasting House in London on Jan. 16, 2022.
PA Images via Getty Images/Dominic Lipinski
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The Scoop

The British broadcaster Piers Morgan is giving up his live, daily, hour-long evening news show for a YouTube-first, digitally native, broadcast consisting of heated debates, sprawling interviews, and “spicy monologues.”

“I’ve just decided that I no longer want to create my show for linear television — I just want to go full digital globally,” Morgan told Semafor in a Zoom interview during his ride home from the studio Wednesday. (I’d suggested he turn the phone camera off. “I don’t know how to do that,” he replied.) He’d just finished his second-to-last live broadcast of Piers Morgan Uncensored on TalkTV, a British television channel owned by News UK, the subsidiary of the Murdoch family’s News Corp.

“There’s something quite anachronistic about a show like mine still trying to create old fashioned TV for a pre-scheduled time slot each night for a relatively small audience — when we’re getting such gigantic audiences digitally,” he said.

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Ben’s view

Morgan — and News Corp. — are taking a dive off the deep end of television. They’re essentially conceding the death of traditional linear TV, with its endless half-hour slots, and heading off into a world of irregular segments, interviews that can sprawl or be cut short, and monetization that depends on tech companies’ whims. Whether by choice or necessity, they’re leapfrogging dominant American broadcast networks that continue to put most of their resources into old-fashioned linear half hours that are then repackaged online.

Morgan’s announcement will be received in Britain as raising questions about the future of TalkTV, a somewhat quixotic attempt to build a new edifice on the melting glacier of linear television. It has struggled to compete with the farther-right GB News. (“Creating professional quality, TV-like video that does well digitally – via streaming services and social media – will be the focus of future investment for all our brands, including Talk,” News UK broadcasting chief Scott Taunton said in a statement.)

“The frustration for me has been continuing to create a TV-format show when that’s not how 95 percent of my audience is watching it,” Morgan said. His recent interview with Rishi Sunak, he said, was viewed by more than 50,000 people on TalkTV — but by more than five times as many on YouTube.”

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(It’s titled, in classic YouTube fashion, “Piers Morgan vs. Rishi Sunak Round 2.”)

The business of supporting expensive news production, with its high salaries, travel costs, and big teams, is notoriously difficult on digital platforms like YouTube, even when you’re getting big numbers. Morgan said more than half of his audience is in the United States, and that revenue from U.S. viewers is “exponentially” higher.

But Morgan, who said he “co-owns” Piers Morgan Uncensored with News Corp., argues that he is building the foundation of a valuable new video brand along the lines of The Daily Wire, the right-wing American digital platform that Ben Shapiro built around his own voice. And he’ll be joining a fragmented, intensely competitive landscape whose stars range from the podcast titan Joe Rogan to the former Fox and NBC host Megyn Kelly. It’s the same kind of business Tucker Carlson is trying to build, though Morgan says “It’s way too early to assess whether tucker’s going to be successful.”

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“I’ve gotten to know very well The Daily Wire, and how lucrative that business has become,” Morgan said. “I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t expand the Uncensored brand globally.”

The broadcaster, a veteran of a series of scandals and triumphs at the highest levels of British media too long to recount and who also hosted a show on CNN from 2011 to 2014, arrived in the Murdoch empire on a complex deal (the 2021 press release quoted no fewer than 8 News Corp. and Fox Corp. executives) to produce a show across quirky platforms ranging from Sky Australia to streamer Fox Nation, reportedly worth about £50 million over three years. But while those platforms may not have taken off, he has broken through on YouTube, where Piers Morgan Uncensored has elbowed its way up the rankings of news brands on the platform.

Morgan’s success on YouTube, and his unabashed embrace of it, are nearly unique for a veteran broadcaster. He has attracted 2.3 million subscribers since its launch in 2022. He’s booked both internet figures and A-list celebrities and politicians starting with the football legend Cristiano Ronaldo.

Part of this stems from his ability to book huge, timely guests — and from his sheer, cultivated talent as a broadcaster. His sprawling interview with the Egyptian comic Bassem Yousef, who arrived doing a pitch black bit of comedy and stayed in character as Morgan carefully pressed him and refused to take his bait, is perhaps the most compelling interview this year, and has been watched more than 22 million times.

He’s also hosted a series of debates on the Middle East conflict, which he said he found rushed during his hour-long show.

“I find myself thinking, ‘I wish we weren’t just doing a TV show here, because if we weren’t I would do this for two hours. That’s what the YouTube crowd love.”

The move to digital will also put Morgan beyond the reach of the British television regular Ofcom, though he said that wasn’t a factor in his move.

“Despite being allegedly so controversial, I’ve never had an Ofcom ruling against me,” he said, adding proudly that he’d received the “most complaints in Ofcom history” after he called Megan Markle, who had spoken of feeling suicidal, a “liar.” “All 55,000 complaints got rejected,” he said.

Morgan’s current interview target, he says, is Elon Musk, whom he’d like to interview for a Joe Rogan-style four hours. Musk, he said, invited him to Austin for an interview January 7 – but then canceled, direct-messaging Morgan a clip in which the television host criticized Musk’s decision to let Alex Jones back on the platform.

“I never imagined in a million years that the king of free speech would be so offended by this seven minute clip that he’d cancel the interview,” said Morgan, who admires Musk and is hopeful he “can see his way past me giving him some pretty mild criticism.”

We concluded the conversation before Morgan arrived at home in west London to pour himself a glass of bordeaux, he said, and “toast the future which is bright, breezy and digital.”

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Notable

  • Janine Gibson’s Lunch with the FT profile of Morgan is a delight from start to finish. A sample: “We first met when I was a media reporter and he was in his thirties, between his first and second National Disgraces. He’d been made editor of the News of the World at an insanely precocious 28 but had brought shame on his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, by publishing pictures of Victoria Lockwood, then wife of Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother, inside an eating disorder clinic….”
  • CNN appears to be reckoning in earnest with the decline of traditional television as well. Its new chief Mark Thompson is “is retreating from the linear ambitions that have driven CNN since its inception,” Dylan Byers wrote in Puck.
  • Megyn Kelly’s revival “shows the shifting balance of power in media, and represents another indication that in a fractured attention landscape, a famous YouTuber can command as much attention and value for politicians as a traditional news organization,” Max Tani wrote in Semafor.
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