When Larry King announced his retirement after 25 years as host of CNN's flagship prime-time talk show, the world wondered who would replace him: Katie Couric? Anderson Cooper? Ryan Seacrest? Not even close: the inheritor of King's suspenders is Piers Morgan, a British former newspaper editor and America's Got Talent judge. His show, Piers Morgan Tonight, debuts on Jan. 17. Morgan spoke with TIME (which shares the same parent company Time Warner with CNN) about interviewing Oprah Winfrey as his first guest, his ambitions to beat Fox News and the scandal that made him a household name.
How does it feel to be on CNN?
It feels great. I'm very excited. I remember watching CNN's coverage from the Gulf War back in 1991 with Peter Arnett and Bernie Shaw on the front line and thinking that this was one of the most exciting news organizations in the world. To be in a position to join them 20 years later is a big thrill for me.
Did the job offer come as a surprise?
I was probably slightly less surprised than people in America, who only know me as a judge on America's Got Talent. In Britain, I'm known as an interviewer from my Piers Morgan's Life Stories show, where I've interviewed people from Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Simon Cowell to Richard Branson and Sharon Osbourne.
Do you think your appeal is largely due to your accent?
There is a certain advantage to the British accent. I do notice that Americans love it; they think that we Brits are smarter than perhaps we are. So I'm going to be relying on that, definitely.
In 2004 you were fired as editor of the Daily Mirror after the tabloid ran photos allegedly doctored to show British soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners.
I stand completely by what the Mirror published. I've never apologized for it. As for the veracity of this particular set of pictures, it remains unanswered. I've never seen any hard evidence that they are fakes.
How different will your new show be from Larry King Live?
Larry is one of the legends of American television and one of the great interviewers in history. To try and copy him would be ridiculous. I have a different interview style; I'm probably a bit more provocative and cheekier.
You interviewed Oprah Winfrey as your first guest. What was it like to sit down with the Queen of TV Talk?
Oprah was everything I hoped she would be: funny as hell, remarkably frank, direct and honest, revelatory, controversial and significant. She was top of my list for a first interview, and she delivered spectacularly well.
Who else do you plan on booking?
I would like to book anyone who has something interesting and fascinating to say. If Paris Hilton goes to jail [again], I'd love to interview her about that experience. Nelson Mandela, of course, and I'd love to sit down with President Obama ahead of the next election and even Mel Gibson. To me, it's a mixture of keeping it unpredictable, but also relevant and newsworthy, with interviews with major figures in everything from politics to royalty to sport and celebrities.
What does success look like for you? Is it all about beating Fox News?
I'm going to be judged by two things: my ability to interview people and ratings. And if in a year's time the ratings have gone up and my interviews are being perceived as good interviews, then job done. There's no point going into anything if you don't want to win. We're not going to overtake Fox News overnight. However, if we get it right on this show, then I believe we have the potential to become No. 1. That's what I'm excited about, and that's always what has driven me.