A “slow motion collapse”, comparable only to that of his beloved Arsenal FC, it was said.
Piers Morgan’s Talk TV show has suffered the ignominy of being beaten in the ratings by a programme fronted by a Canadian “human rights activist” on rival GB News, one who few people in the UK would even recognise.
Not that you would believe it from Morgan’s public response. He dismissed the ratings collapse as an irrelevance, citing the much wider audience viral clips are enjoying on social media.
“Linear TV increasingly irrelevant to total eyeball potential for a global show like this, especially with younger viewers who don’t really watch TV any more,” he tweeted. Pretty much the same excuse GB News wheeled out when their launch failed to get high ratings and one that has some merit.
After just one month in air, it leaves Rupert Murdoch’s challenger station, launched to shake-up the TV establishment, facing a public autopsy into what has gone wrong and whether Morgan can ever live up to his own hype.
And failure could come at a cost, especially for News UK, which has spent millions on marketing Morgan’s show and providing extensive cross-promotion of TalkTV contents across its newspaper stable, including The Sun and The Times.
Mr Murdoch has invested as much in the Morgan “brand” as the channel. The former editor was signed up to a supposed £50m deal including books and newspaper columns.
For Morgan, there is the potential personal cost. He admitted before the launch that Mr Murdoch can be ruthless when investments aren’t working out. If the show wasn’t a success after a few months, Morgan said he could be “back on the beach”.
Despite bullish tweets talking up its social media impact, live viewing for Morgan’s flagship prime-time show is in freefall.
Launched with an exclusive Donald Trump interview, Piers Morgan Uncensored drew a peak audience of 400,000 viewers on its 25 April debut.
Revelling in his return to the limelight after a year of TV silence, Morgan proclaimed instant ratings victory over Sky News, BBC News and GB News.
Yet within a week, the opening figures had slumped by 80 per cent with ratings body Barb recording 62,000 viewers for Morgan’s 8pm mix of acerbic monologues and celebrity interviews.
GB News, the station mocked for its launch failings and “zero viewers”, smelt blood.
It has steadily built a loyal audience for right-wing opinion-led debate programming, which was not swayed by the well-funded newcomer.
And on Monday night the unthinkable happened. Morgan’s show recorded a new low of 40,300 viewers.
GB News’s alternative, an hour in the company of Mark Steyn, a Canadian-born polemicist, described by one American newspaper as “the most toxic right-wing pundit you’ve never heard of”, claimed a ratings victory with 41,100 viewers.
Morgan’s rapidly deserting audience was even the butt of mocking jokes during last week’s Bafta TV awards.
Steve Coogan, appearing by video as Alan Partridge, said: “Sadly, I can’t be with you because I’m on a nationwide tour, performing to an audience bigger than Piers Morgan gets on the actual telly. But the good thing with Piers is that it doesn’t bother him.”
Morgan promised to “cancel the cancel culture” with his own forthright take on the culture wars. Yet the show’s most controversial moment arrived when he was called a “c***” last week by a guest who was interviewed about trans rights.
The presenter made an immediate apology although Ofcom is likely to ask whether the bad language could have been anticipated.
The Steyn reversal had been coming. Last week, Nigel Farage’s GB News show beat Morgan’s show for the first time since TalkTV launched.
Some 58,000 viewers tuned in to watch Morgan’s programme on Monday evening, compared to 73,600 for Farage on GB News.
Morgan may regret boasting on Twitter that his launch show “got five times the ratings” of Farage’s programme.
On Tuesday, Morgan avoided chatting about the latest ratings, called a “slow motion collapse” by the Guido Fawkes blog, preferring to bemoan Arsenal’s defeat at Newcastle (a rival attraction to his show) and taunt departing BBC Breakfast presenter and old GMB rival, Dan Walker.
But however worrying the swift decline, Morgan’s ratings are the tent-pole holding TalkTV up. On Monday The Talk, the debate show created as a platform for Sharon Osbourne, which follows Morgan at 9pm, recorded just 300 viewers, Barb said.
No competition for showbusiness journalist Dan Wootton, who has been toiling away in the 9pm slot on GB News since its launch, and who was watched by 81,000 viewers.
Writing off Morgan, who bounced back after resigning as Daily Mirror editor amid scandal to reinvent himself as a TV presenter, is dangerous. His forceful questioning of politicians, acting as the viewers’ advocate, added one million viewers to the GMB breakfast audience over six years.
Because the new show is aimed at an international audience, with a live broadcast in the US and Australia, Morgan has less opportunity to tear into domestic controversies and grill UK politicians.
An unintended consequence of TalkTV is that it has encouraged viewers to take a second look at GB News, whose presenters are gleeful at its rival’s struggles, after its own rocky start.
GB News insiders said the channel preferred not to crow at Morgan’s misfortunes. An industry figure said: “No one is writing off Piers Morgan or Talk TV but it takes time for a new channel to build an audience and find an identity. GB News is further along that road.”
Mr Murdoch was persuaded that TalkTV would blow GB News out of the water but he may have over-estimated the prime-time audience for opinion-led news channels.