How TalkTV is bracing advertisers for an ‘uncensored’ Piers Morgan
TalkTV, the new channel from Rupert Murdoch's News UK, goes live on 25 April with Piers Morgan as its 'uncensored' primetime presenter. During rehearsals in London, the channel's top team tell Ian Burrell why they're confident they won't face the advertiser boycotts that beset rival GB News even as their star host promises to 'cancel cancel culture'.
Piers Morgan in the trailer for his new flagship TalkTV show / TalkTV
In recent weeks Piers Morgan has been ‘on tour’ in Australia and New York, re-sharpening his TV skills ahead of the biggest moment in his career.
He flew into Sydney on a Murdoch family private jet and held forth from Australian breakfast show sofas. As a guest on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News in America he applied the bellows to his feud with Meghan Markle and reflected on the state of mind of Will Smith.
While he conducts this promotional campaign for Piers Morgan Uncensored, which debuts in the UK, the US and Australia on 25 April, intense preparations are underway in London, where the show is being made, to ensure Rupert Murdoch gets bang for his considerable buck.
At Ealing Studios, west London, a bespoke set has been created by Emmy-winning designer Jim Fenhagen, who made the backdrops for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, not to mention Morgan’s chat show at CNN.
Across town at News UK’s headquarters in London Bridge, the head of the operation, Scott Taunton, EVP, president of broadcasting, News UK, makes no attempt to hide his nervousness. “I lay awake every minute of every night worrying about what might go wrong and we then put that list of what might go wrong to the team and it’s as long as my arm.”
Rehearsals are taking place, using stand-ins, with Piers watching and commenting via video link. “The channel is effectively live now – it doesn’t leave the building but we are testing it and it falls over from time to time,” says Taunton. “I would be kidding you if I said I am wholly confident that this will go without a hitch and anyone that said that would be lying.”
Morgan’s show is the primetime flagship of TalkTV, a multiple-platform channel which News UK is launching across linear and on-demand platforms. At the back of Taunton’s mind is surely June’s disastrous launch of GB News, which had been billed as a great rival to Rupert’s ambitions in UK television. The GB News set was so so dark on launch that viewers joked that presenter Andrew Neil was broadcasting from his “man cave”.
Winnie Dunbar Nelson, executive editor of Piers Morgan Uncensored, says Morgan learned that lesson from Barbra Streisand, who told him that having “the best lighting in the business” had lured her to his CNN show. “It is so important to people to not only feel comfortable with the person they are being interviewed by but also to look great,” says Morgan’s editor.
The 360-degree set at Ealing, which uses multiple screens for different segments of the show, has been designed to attract guests of a calibre that they will be instantly-known to audiences from Melbourne to Los Angeles. It is also big enough for Morgan to generate the social media-friendly stunts he is known for: sparring with Mike Tyson, playing piano with Barry Manilow or being thrashed at tennis by Serena Williams. “He likes to step away from the desk and experience his guests in other ways,” says Dunbar Nelson, who was Morgan’s producer at CNN and Good Morning Britain. “We wanted a lot of screens, we wanted a lot of versatility and we wanted a lot of space. So we basically took a concrete slab and made it into the dream studio.”
Will polarizing Piers put off advertisers?
One possible cause of Taunton’s sleepless nights could be Morgan himself. Piers might be the most famous name in British media but many find him repulsive. He thrives on controversy but that brings problems. When he stormed off the set off Good Morning Britain in March 2021 after saying he did not believe Markle’s claims of feeling suicidal, he generated the most complained-about TV episode of 2021, with 54,595 people appealing to Ofcom (which cleared GMB).
When GB News landed last year, brands including Ikea, Grolsch, Kopparberg and Octopus Energy suspended advertising amid online criticism of the channel’s perceived values. Could Piers, who is writing spiky columns for Murdoch tabloids The Sun and the New York Post, provoke a similar boycott?
Piers Morgan Uncensored will feature a monologue segment in which the host sounds off into the camera on a hot topic, reveals Dunbar Nelson. “That is a feature of the show that we have never done before and it’s something we think will be really nice to share on social."
Taunton says he does not fear an advertiser backlash, saying that has not happened at TalkRadio, the opinionated Murdoch-owned station that will form the backbone of the TalkTV schedule. “My expectation is that we won’t be in that space,” he says. “There may be from time to time opinion that an advertiser or a particular group isn’t happy with and we will work with them.”
The message to advertisers puts emphasis on the D-word: TalkTV will feature a diversity of views.
“When you hear the list of names we have coming you won’t be able to point to it and say this is a station that is coming from an ideological position,” says Taunton. “This is a station that has a broad church of presenters and talent and expects to gain a broad church of consumers who come to watch it in its various forms.”
Sharon Osbourne has been hired to host prime-time panel show The Talk. “When you start to see the diverse make up of the individuals across The Talk what you would be expecting is to get lots of different insight and opinion that is diverse in every way,” says Taunton.
TalkTV will have its own news bulletins and has brought in Kate McCann from Sky News as political editor, and Taunton says this will be “news brought to you in a straight way - we are not looking to put a slant on the output”.
The pitch to advertisers
News UK has appointed Sky Media as its sales house and it has been busy communicating with potential commercial partners “sharing clips and video that set out what the channel stands for and gives them sense of the talent that we are bringing in”, he says. Aside from spot advertising on the linear product, and pre-roll around the connected TV and social media output, TalkTV is looking to do sponsorship deals around programme segments (Ofcom-regulated, it cannot do sponsor deals for entire shows).
TalkTV will not be a Fox News UK, Taunton insists. “If News Corp or the Murdochs had wanted to bring Fox to the UK they would have done that.” Instead, this is a product that builds on the established news brands of the News UK stable and makes its insights available on “a 24-7 available-everywhere product for the digital age”. TalkTV will be available on Sky, Virgin Media and Freeview but also Amazon Fire, Apple TV and Samsung TV Plus and in clips on social media.
Tom Newton Dunn, former political editor of The Sun, will host an hour-long news show which precedes Morgan’s in the schedule. His guests will include colleagues from The Times and TalkSport and Piers will pop up at the end of the hour to tease his own show. Newton Dunn’s show and The Talk will be made from new TV studios at News UK in London Bridge.
GB News also rejected the idea that it was a “Fox News UK” and said it would have a wide diversity of views. Its brand today is closely associated with the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, its star host, and the anti-woke stance of much of the output.
While Taunton claims that TalkTV “isn’t going to be a style of television that comes purely from that cancel culture space”, the culture wars have been a core theme for TalkRadio. That station’s daytime roster of Julia Hartley-Brewer, Mike Graham, Ian Collins and Jeremy Kyle will be streamed on TalkTV via London Bridge studios which are being revamped so that the channel’s look, from idents to lower-third graphics, is consistent across the output.
And Morgan, author of several books on cancel culture, has described his show’s “main purpose” is to tackle a phenomenon “which has infected societies around the world”. Dunbar Nelson says there will be a broader agenda that will see the host “champion the little guy, pointing out villains for what they do wrong and lifting up heroes for what they do right”. The show will include “vigorous debate and we want to heavily feature that dirty word: fun."
She has been with Morgan for his interviews with the likes of former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who Morgan questioned over his views on homosexuality). Morgan has sat down with a string of US presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He is friends with Donald Trump, who has given him a series of exclusive interviews, even inviting him onto Air Force One. “He would definitely be someone we would be interested to talk to,” says Dunbar Nelson.
It is 12 years since she helped persuade Morgan to open an account on Twitter, where he now self-promotes to nearly 8 million followers, sharing with them TalkTV memes of his face, split between saint and devil and with the tease: “Love him or hate him, you won’t want to miss him.” The team has registered him on TikTok, a platform where TalkTV content will be shared. “I don’t know if I’m going to talk him into doing any make-up demos,” ponders Dunbar Nelson.
In getting this show right, she is being supported by series director Erron Gordon, who launched GMB and political show Peston while at ITV, and Vivek Sharma, another ITV veteran who is now executive producer at News UK Broadcasting. It is because of such expertise that Taunton believes that TalkTV will overcome any pre-launch teething problems and change the ecology of British (and international) television on 25 April. “We are trouble shooting and I am confident that we have given this the best chance to come straight out of the blocks as a phenomenal TV service,” he says. “But there is still a lot of work to be done.”