It began at 9:00 p.m. just like this:  after days of intensive CNN promotion where we see Oprah call it “one of the toughest interviews I’ve had in twenty years,” Piers Morgan opened the door, sat down and asked the first question on his highly anticipated new talk show.  I turned up the volume, shushed my husband and leaned forward.

"one of the toughest interviews Ive had in twenty years"

PIERS: Tell me this, do you ever get surreal moments when, I’m trying to picture what it’s like being you, when you wake up in the morning and you go, ‘Bloody hell, I’m Oprah Winfrey.’

OPRAH:  Well I don’t say, “bloody hell,” but I did have a surreal moment, January 1st, when I launched my new network.

It had been only a matter of seconds before Oprah was pitching her heart out about her new cable network, OWN.  Watching the January 1st launch, she told Morgan,  had moved her to tears when she finally “got it.”   Groomed in the rough and tumble world of London’s Fleet Street, he was more than ready for his follow up.

PIERS: What does it really mean to have your own network?

With the words, “exclusive” written in the lower third of the screen*, Oprah revealed a story she had only shared with the few dozen reporters who attended her press conference at the  Television Critics Association on January 7th.  She said she never loved commercials as much as when she saw them on her OWN network. (*Full disclosure, I have over-used “exclusive” myself  plenty over the years.)

Okay, to be fair, Morgan wants Oprah to get a little something out of the interview, so perhaps it’s good to get a few warm up questions out of the way.  Let’s dig in now.

PIERS: How many people do you trust?

Oprah says about 5 or 6, but she’s not going to say who they are.  Oprah’s on to him now and lets him know she’s not going to discuss what she told Barbara Walters about Gayle.

PIERS: Typical Oprah, you nailed the lie!

Oprah makes it very clear that she will never address those “rumors” again.  And Morgan backs off, but not before Oprah explains why she cried in the Walters interview while discussing her friendship with Gayle.

Having been warned by Oprah not to tread on “rumor” territory, or to expect her to cry again, Morgan deftly backs her in a corner with this follow up:

PIERS: How did Gayle react to your reaction?

OPRAH: She said, ‘that’s so nice.’

It turns out, Gayle didn’t have a chance to see the Barbara Walters interview until they were in Australia, something which made Morgan absolutely collapse in laughter.  But then he composed himself in order to continue Oprah’s toughest interview. 

One thing I learned after years of interviewing celebrities and newsmakers, and producing interviews for Tom Snyder, Diane Sawyer, Sam Donaldson, Barbara Walters, Charlie Gibson, George Stephanopoulos, Elizabeth Vargas, Cynthia McFadden, and Robin Roberts, is this: sometimes the question is more important than the answer.

So here’s a look at the rest of Pier Morgan’s questions, not verbatim,  that comprise one of Oprah’s toughest interviews:

PIERS: Everything you touch is a hit.  Will you touch me?

PIERS: Do you (ever) contemplate failure with OWN?

PIERS:  You are the American Queen.  Do you feel regal?

PIERS:  I love Australia.  We destroyed them at cricket. Tell me about Australia.  (The show where you gave away the trip) was the most outrageous thing I’ve ever seen in my life, amazing! How do you beat that?  (Flying your audience to Australia) piloted by John Travolta?

PIERS: It’s the single greatest stunt I’ve ever seen.

Oprah bristles at the use of the word, “stunt.”

PIERS: A great moment, not a stunt.

Oprah bristles some more.

PIERS: Okay, I take it back.

PIERS: Are you a tough boss?  Demanding?

PIERS: What advice would you give Michael Vicks?

She declines, stating she is trying to get his interview. Morgan says he is, too, and challenges Oprah to a £100 bet.  She raises him to £200.

PIERS: I’ve dreamt I would be a rival.

PIERS: What is your brand?

OPRAH: I’m the love brand.

PIERS: How many times have you been properly in love?

OPRAH: Oh, you’re good.

PIERS: Tell me about Stedman.  You know who he reminds me of?  The Prince of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip. When did you know you were in love with him?

Piers is right! Stedman does look a bit like Prince Phillip, if you squint a little

Oprah instead tells a moment with Stedman involving  a tabloid item that sent her to bed for days. Stedman entered the room and offered to read it to her and said he was really sorry about the relative who had betrayed her for money. That’s when she knew this was the man who would stand in and stand up for her, and that, she said is love.

Itchy to get through this part, Oprah volunteers, “I’m not the marrying kind,” and that she’s not sorry that she didn’t become a mother, instead taking great pride in being a fabulous “Auntie O” to Gayle’s children.  She did talk about being pregnant at 14 and that the baby died, forever changing her destiny. She said had her father known, he would have killed her for shaming the family, and she thought she wanted to die.  Headline News called it “Oprah’s Suicide Shocker,” then ran it 3rd or 4th story down.

PIERS: A good argument can be made that Barack Obama would not have become president if it were not for Oprah Winfrey.

OPRAH: I don’t know.

PIERS: If you were to give an academic report on Barack Obama…

OPRAH:  I couldn’t.  I haven’t been paying attention.

Oprah tells Morgan she’ll never run for president. “This what I admire about myself: I know what my lane is and I know to stay in my lane.”

PIERS: How rich is Oprah?

PIERS: What was the most painful check you ever wrote to the IRS?

OPRAH: Oh, you’re good. You’re good.

PIERS: You are said to be worth $2.7 billion. Another amazing fact: you’ve given away $300 million.

OPRAH: More than that.

PIERS:(when this airs)  It is Martin Luther King Day…

OPRAH: Now I could weep over that.

PIERS:  If he were looking down, the most powerful man and most powerful woman, African American…

PIERS: I want to end on this question.  How have I done?

OPRAH: Surprising.

About as surprising as it was tough.

A soft start, for sure, contrasted sharply by CNN’s own extreme hype.  But this is a marathon, not a sprint.  Piers Morgan has only good will behind him.

So after the launch week (or before) perhaps CNN can help the team reassess. (The  over-hype of content, the format of one-hour taped interviews which is hard to sustain.)

There’s pure platinum to come with Ricky Gervais. And there’s no need to manufacture a story that he was missing or fired for an hour during the Golden Globes. It’s a big  juicy, gossipy Hollywood controversy. And, he’s more than a fair sparring partner.  Sadly, I’ll have to TIVO it, but I’m looking forward to it just the same.

It’s a shame it can’t air earlier in the week, when the material and guest is red hot. Thursday, when it’s scheduled happens to be the 50th anniversary of JFK’s inauguration, you know, the one with the famous speech,  “Ask not…, etc.” Perhaps Piers Morgan Tonight can slip in a nod to that somewhere.

Hey, I’m married to a Brit and I can share this: it’s not the accent that won me over. Nothing has charmed more  over the years than watching his American journey, the  awe as he explores the American soul, our pain, our struggle,  our dreams.

If Piers asked me the “When did I know properly” question, I’d answer this:  over 20 years ago when we visited the Kennedy Museum in Boston, the one that honors the “Ask not” guy and his family.  It was the moment I saw him shed tears during the Bobby Kennedy documentary. We went home and rented, then watched all 14 hours of the “Eyes On the Prize.”

Now that’s a keeper.

I, for one, want to see Piers Morgan succeed, see CNN once again become a competitve force. As our most eloquent president once said, “A rising tide lifts all ships.”