How breakfast television lost its spot as the most important news meal of the day

Breakfast television, once a morning requisite as rich and piquant as a smoked haddock kedgeree, has turned into its modern-day equivalent: a few mouthfuls of froth, taken on the move.

Earlier last month, ITV launched its hapless early morning show, Daybreak, for effectively the third time, bursting onto the schedule with all the crackle and pop of a soggy rusk. Hosted by Lorraine Kelly and Aled Jones in a studio drenched in the colour of Sunny Delight, it represents a near total retreat from hard journalism, the essential ingredient which ITV promised to bring back when it axed GMTV only two years ago.

Over on early morning Channel 4, they're showing double helpings of Everybody Loves Raymond, an American family sitcom which, as it finally wrapped in 2005, will be of limited use as a daily briefing on current affairs. Channel 5, the broadcasting arm of Richard Desmond's media empire, is offering the adventures of Thomas the tank engine and his pals.

So when I visited the BBC's Media City in Salford last week to be told the corporation's Breakfast has maintained its audience on "a straight line" since the move north in April, I was not hugely impressed. Given the extraordinary summer of news, and the BBC's considerable advantage of exclusive coverage of the Olympics, it doesn't seem much of a claim, especially when you consider the feeble state of the competition.

In four months from now, Sir David Frost will have occasion to open a bottle of his favourite Chablis to toast the 30th anniversary of founding TV-am, the station that gave birth to early morning television in Britain (the BBC responded by bringing out its Breakfast Time two weeks before the upstart's launch).

Along with Frosty – who had conducted his famous interviews with President Richard Nixon only six years earlier – TV-am's presenting line-up included Michael Parkinson, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford and Robert Kee, some of the most high-profile British journalists of their generation. The station loftily boasted of having a "mission to explain".

The BBC show had its own big-hitters in Frank Bough – whose switch from the early evening magazine show Nationwide reflected the major shift in the daily news cycle – and Selina Scott, who was poached from ITV's News at Ten, where she was the star turn.

Channel 4 entered the field in 1989 with The Channel 4 Daily, replacing that with the madcap Big Breakfast which, though it was hardly a source of serious news, attracted an audience of more than two million and increased the sense of fierce competition in the early morning market. It also made the reputations of Chris Evans, Johnny Vaughan and Denise van Outen, whose names have become synonymous with breakfast broadcasting.

With all respect, the presenting team on BBC Breakfast – Bill Turnbull, Susanna Reid, Louise Minchin and Charlie Stayt – are some way from being the five-star generals in the corporation's news army and wouldn't generate much excitement on a trip to the shops.

Yet the programme is head and shoulders above its chief rival. According to Adam Bullimore, the editor of Breakfast, there is almost no crossover between his show and Daybreak. "There's a very small constituency of people who are watching the TV in a way that they are going to flick between us and them," he says. "I think those numbers are tiny."

Sky customers have the option of Sunrise on Sky News but it's largely a vehicle for Eamonn Holmes, Lorraine Kelly's old colleague from the sofa at cosy old GMTV. As if choice wasn't already limited, the BBC's Breakfast switches to a fluffier entertainment-based format after 8.30am.

ITV's introduction of a grumpy Adrian Chiles in front of a gloomy backdrop over a grey River Thames was its failed attempt to be more serious and journalistic in its approach to early morning television. That experience seems to have only encouraged TV executives to play it safe with increasingly bland "popular" output, without the attitude or personality shown by tabloid papers.

Audience research techniques are more sophisticated than ever, so perhaps this is what the public wants at the start of the day? Bullimore points out that his daily battle for viewers isn't really a contest with other broadcasters.

"When I think about putting the programme together I think our big competition is life – it's 'I'm going to leave for work, I'm going to have my shower, I'm going to make my breakfast, I'm going to let the kids have the remote control and watch what they want to watch,'" he says.

It's probably to his advantage that most young people aren't much interested in getting hold of the remote anyway; they're happier consuming their own media, privately and not involving a TV screen.

Bullimore naturally disagrees that breakfast TV is on the wane. He points out that because early morning audiences don't have time to watch from an armchair, breakfast shows are not having to "fight the PVR" like later bulletins which lose out as viewers settle down to watch favourite shows they have recorded.

He is right about people's busy lives. What has also changed since the days when breakfast television was the place to be is the very rhythm of the daily news cycle. Many Eighties viewers would rely on a morning briefing to see them through the entire working day. In the pre-internet era, newspapers were more concerned with breaking stories and less devoted to analysis. So the morning arrived like a fresh slate announcing how the world had changed.

Today news is more fluid. Mobile phone technology, the move of newspapers online, the spread of computers in workplaces, means we can imbibe information at all times. If we miss our breakfast television, we can instantly catch up with any story while we're on the move, probably as we sip another mouthful of froth.

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