Media: Big trouble for breakfast

These days more people watch re-runs of Top Cat than tune in to The Big Breakfast, whose ratings have been declining since the glory days of Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin. Can they ever get the chemistry right again?
Kelly has problems with her pronunciation, according to an internal memo. There's no chemistry between Ms Brook and her fellow Big Breakfast presenter Johnny Vaughan, says the News of the World. Johnny now wants to present programmes that don't involve him reaching for the alarm clock at three in the morning, The Guardian says. Now, Gail Porter is lined up to replace Brook, according to the News of the World, The Mirror and the magazine Heat. The Big Breakfast, in short, appears to be in deep trouble.

The fact is that fewer people tune into a week's worth of The Big Breakfast than into a single episode of Countdown - about a million fewer, in fact. The programme is even outperformed by re-runs of the cartoon Top Cat. It takes The Big Breakfast about a year to attract the same number of viewers that Coronation Street can rack up in a fortnight.

But bizarrely, all that doesn't matter too much. For all its lack of ratings substance, the fact remains that for Channel 4, for the programme's maker Planet 24, The Big Breakfast remains a very important programme indeed.

It will account for around 5 per cent of Channel 4's entire pounds 600m advertising revenue this year, or around pounds 30m. Only Brookside among Channel 4 programmes will speak for more. That puts it above Friends, above Frasier, and way above Countdown in the Channel 4 hierarchy. And this for a show that has seen its viewer numbers more than halve over the past four years.

Of course, you really should have seen it back then in the good old days. According to a poll of London's finest ad agencies, The Big Breakfast at its Gaby Roslin and Chris Evans-inspired peak was directly responsible for pulling in almost 15 per cent of Channel 4's total advertising revenue - in 1995, for instance, when the show's yearly average ratings were 900,000, that would have meant something like pounds 65m. The incredibly young audience which tunes into The Big Breakfast is gold dust to admen. But then this year's pounds 30m is still a tidy piece of change and, for a programme that costs roughly pounds 20,000 an hour to make, makes those two morning hours suddenly look like a pretty useful bit of air time.

The fact is that even today The Big Breakfast still punches considerably above its official ratings weight. If lots of people watch it in the morning, the ratings for the rest of the channel's programmes go up.

As a show, it's also important to Planet 24. The company had a rocky patch with Channel 4 after The Word was taken off the air in 1994, and The Big Breakfast was largely responsible for maintaining the merest semblance of a relationship. It was also the main reason that Carlton TV was prepared to pay pounds 15m for the company earlier this year. Chris Evans's Ginger Productions had already walked away from any possible deal, citing the top-heavy position that the programme holds in Planet 24's overall portfolio, earning the company pounds 20m a year and being singlehandedly responsible for more than three-quarters of the 600 hours of network programming it supplies each year.

According to one of Planet 24's founders, Bob Geldof, The Big Breakfast goes even further than that. It also supplies the clearest impression of what Planet 24 is all about. And what Planet 24 is about, the Live Aid legend points out, is "managing to shift the way television looked so that nowadays our screens are awash with Planet 24 wannabe programming".

Unfortunately, that's now the real problem. The Big Breakfast is never, it seems, going to recapture the glory days that attended its launch.

"The huge advantage The Big Breakfast enjoyed when it launched was that people had no expectations of it. It replaced Channel 4 Daily, and you could have fitted the audience for that in my office," says Ian Lewis, head of broadcast evaluation at the media agency Zenith. "And here suddenly was this show that wasn't doing what most successful shows do - which is converting the audience from the other channels - but which was affecting a whole lifestyle change in viewers, and bringing on board people who had never thought of watching TV in the mornings. But once the novelty wore off and Evans left it has become increasingly clear that The Big Breakfast lives or dies on the chemistry of its two main presenters."

Whatever this chemistry consists of, Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin certainly had it. Chris's cheeky chappie persona played off against Gaby's giggling girl-next-door in a quite spectacular way. The set's primary colours and the non-stop lurid and lunatic games were a revelation to us in those far-off days, bored as we were by the GMTV sofa. Chris and Gaby became household names. When they were really at the top of their game, The Big Breakfast was picking up 30 per cent of the total breakfast-time TV audience with viewing figures peaking above a million.

After Chris left, things never really reached those heights again. Mark Little, Zoe Ball, Keith Chegwin, Julia Carling, Richard Orford and even Vanessa Feltz came and went and the ratings just ebbed away. The nadir came in the summer of 1997, when Rick Adams and Sharron Davies were presenting, and the show wallowed in a ratings slough just north of 300,000.

This was very, very bad. "What people forget is that ratings on The Big Breakfast have been falling practically since its launch," explains Lewis. "They even started to fall when Evans was there. For all the relaunches, all the new faces, it was only when Johnny and Denise were together last year that this trend was reversed."

Between them, it certainly seemed that Johnny Vaughan and his sidekick Denise Van Outen had saved the programme. They updated the Evans and Roslin show for an ever smuttier generation. Their on-screen flirtations kept us on the edge of our seats for months. They secured the programme more than half a million viewers. And that's not ordinary common or garden viewers, that's Big Breakfast viewers. The average Big Breakfast viewer watches for just 16 minutes while the show is on for two hours, so you have to multiply the number of viewers by eight to get a true picture of the numbers who actually watch.

Indeed, everything was going swimmingly until, in November last year, Denise announced she was off. Dark rumours suggested that Johnny Vaughan had secured a pounds 500,000 a year deal until the end of 2000 while Denise was only offered two-thirds of that, and had departed in a fit of pique. Whatever the reason, she left after Christmas. Suddenly Planet 24 desperately needed to create a little more on-screen magic. And it's still trying.

"It's never pleasant to watch a media vehicle go into terminal decline but there's little doubt that The Big Breakfast is much more important to Planet 24 these days than it ever is to advertisers," says David Cuff, broadcast director at Initiative Media, the Persil-to-Peperami media agency that is an important breakfast-time player. "The Big Breakfast really needs an extraordinary presenting team to work, and there aren't that many Chris Evans or Johnny Vaughans around. Or not that are willing to get up at three in the morning, anyway."

If Planet 24 does remove Brook, and if Vaughan does at some point leave, no matter how arduous the search for their replacements, the portents are poor. After all, Brook was herself the product of the sort of exhaustive search process that would put Special Branch to shame. More than 500 women and their agents contacted the production company when Van Outen left. From Caprice and Gail Porter to Donna Air and down through the ranks of former Miss Irelands and Capital Radio weather girls, all made enquiries. Planet 24 decided to go through every single one, working on the principle that leaving out even one unknown could mean they missed the next Denise - herself a nobody when she started as a weather girl.

Unfortunately it hasn't seemed to work. Not yet anyway, and perhaps it never will. But that doesn't mean the media's favourite breakfast-time soap opera isn't important. It is, if only for old time's sake.