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Piers Morgan debuts on CNN

Larry King, even at his best, would never have been able to do what Piers Morgan did Monday night.

Larry King, even at his best, would never have been able to do what Piers Morgan did Monday night.

Morgan is CNN's replacement in King's longtime, prime-time slot at 9 p.m. weeknights, with the show entitled "Piers Morgan Tonight." The very venerable King has retired after 24 1/2 years. Thanks in part to the tired King franchise, CNN, this country's first 24/7 news cabler, is losing badly in prime time, getting trounced by righty Fox and lefty MSNBC.

Morgan, an English tabloid journalist, game-show judge, and TV host, is in many ways a cry for help. CNN is clearly hoping Morgan, famed for being edgy, gossipy, and rule-busting, will attract eyeballs. The question is whether the down-the-middle channel can hang on for the ride.

The first-ever guest on Morgan's show Monday night was Oprah Winfrey. It's called swinging for the fences.

In the prerecorded (and clearly edited) interview we saw two famed interviewers go at it, both with a smile. Winfrey, crazily over-made-up, tried at every turn to assert control and furnish O boilerplate where Morgan wanted revelation and dish. (Her answer to his first question, for example, made sure to plug her just-fledged cable channel, OWN.) And many of her answers were of the "I am very clear that my life, my purpose, is bigger than myself" variety. Pablum. Drone. Bilge.

King probably would have let it stand. Hardly famed for his incisive follow-up questions, he was the Old Reliable Softballer for the entertainment industry, the go-to guy for anyone with a new book, CD, show, or movie.

Morgan won't be like that. He is high-energy, enthusiastic, effusive, playful, fascinated. During answers, he purses his small mouth, listening. He has a mischievous I-know-you-won't-like-this smile when he probes.

Even his edgiest queries come in a manner that blunts any impression of meanness or nastiness. He uses his explosive laugh to excellent advantage; somehow it never sounds forced, even though he tends to laugh loudest when his guest resists the most.

And he did ask follow-ups, always with good cheer. But all of them - and here is where Winfrey could not have hoped to escape - were designed to play up what she was refusing to answer. All in good fun, of course.

While you can't say Morgan pried any big revelations out of Oprah, you can definitely say he "won" the encounter (if it were even a contest in the first place). That's because, after a first segment that was clearly a draw, he got Oprah to banter and to leave, for brief moments, her perpetual scriptedness.

In the second segment, he knocked her off her mark, ever so slightly, with the question, exquisitely crafted, of "How many times have you been properly in love?" (Winfrey complimented him on the properly, and she rewarded it with an answer: three times, with two broken hearts.)

In the last segment, he asked what was "the most painful check you've ever had to write for the IRS." Again, she was surprised, and refused to name a dollar amount - but here again, we could see there was one she dearly regretted. She was in mid-Oprah-oration about her gesture of taking whole audiences to Australia when Morgan suggested it could be seen as a "stunt," and Winfrey, who doesn't take such talk, didn't take it here, either.

Morgan asked questions he knew she did not wish to be asked, and although she seldom answered them, he made sure she was always refusing, in the process, in spite of herself, revealing very much indeed. She spoke of her thoughts of suicide while pregnant at 14, and when he asked if she ever wondered how things might have been had her child lived (it did not), she snapped a too-quick "No." But then came a passionate, detailed answer that showed she thinks about it all the time.

That answer, in essence, was that if she'd had the child, she never would have achieved or excelled. She is a sympathetic, powerful presence, but with Morgan this answer, which she has given hundreds of times in other interviews, revealed a not altogether attractive aspect.

After a long talk about the perpetual, quiet presence of Winfrey consort Stedman Graham, Morgan pressed her on the issue of marriage. It went all sorts of places, ending with Winfrey's explanation that "I'm pretty assured that had I married I wouldn't have remained married." This was Oprah's best moment, when she made clear why her life is so unconventional, why it has to be.

Oprah was made to work hard to assert control, often feinting at turning the interview around on the interviewer. It somehow didn't take. Morgan waited for the feint to finish, then asked his next question.

Tuesday night's guest is Howard Stern, interviewed on what seems like a totally different set. (Surely CNN can't keep this up!) Other guests this week include Ricky Gervais, fresh from a stink-up as host of the Golden Globes on Sunday night; and brothers Nick and George Clooney, sure to discuss Sudan.

Morgan won't be able to keep up this level of guest, surely, but if he shows the judgment, skills, and news sense he showed Monday with the toughest first-night assignment a TV talk-show host ever had, he'll make people forget Larry King even more quickly than they already have.