A new daytime dawns

For years it's been a formula: soap, agony and cosy chat. Now the stars of daytime TV are sharpening their act to please a new audience.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In one memorable moment from the early days of ITV's This Morning with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, Judy turned to her husband and announced, with alarming candour: "Yes. I once had a clear vaginal discharge, too. Didn't I, Richard?" Richard, clearly shocked, hastily pulled himself together and replied, "Yes, you did, Judy. Yes, you did."

What an extraordinary thing to discover about Ms Finnigan at 11am on a weekday morning. We have, of course, become used to TV presenters sharing their personal secrets with the public, but these are usually confined to the biggies: abuse, bulimia, and drink, rather than something as ... intimate as this.

Judy Finnigan has become a big star - the queen of daytime TV - and confessions such as this are one of the reasons why. The BBC's competitor - Good Morning with Anne and Nick - borrows heavily from the Richard and Judy format (aside from Nick Owen's ability to produce snappy puns to suit all occasions - a talent that is wholly his own). And because one can always spot a counterfeit (Anne and Nick aren't even married!) they are about to be canned, with average viewing figures of 1 million, while Richard and Judy (with a peak of 3.6 million at 11am last Tuesday, an all-time high) are to leave their Liverpool studio for London.

Now, just as the formula has reached perfection, radical changes are afoot. The old sci-fi fantasy that "in the future everyone will stay at home" is becoming reality. No longer are daytime viewers comprised of listless retirees, the sick, housebound and easily pleased. A whole new audience is being identified - and courted.

"We've just done intensive research," says Jerry Johns, spokesman for daytime programming at BBC's Pebble Mill. "I can't tell you too much. Some people would love to get their hands on our figures. I'll tell you this. There's a growing young, highly intelligent, very demanding, and highly sought after demographic group appearing in our figures. University students. Young professionals working from home. Extraordinary."

Jerry has a tough task ahead trying to satisfy both pensioners and undergraduates: "There are some interesting surprises ahead. We've discovered that we have two enormous assets who haven't properly been exploited. One is Ainsley Harriet - a black chef. Viewers really like him. And the other is the dishy TV doctor, Mark Porter. People can't get enough. So our newest programme, Can't Cook, Won't Cook at 9.20am is presented by, surprise surprise, Ainsley Harriet."

ITV, too, has been moving - clumsily - towards the almost impossible goal of appeasing both demographic opposites. Richard and Judy's guests are no longer confined solely to the likes of Petula Clark and Penelope Keith. Now they share a sofa with Lee Evans, Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer. It's a bit like combining Family Circle magazine (daytime TV's most obvious literary counterpart) with the NME.

For instance, when Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer were guests, this conversation ensued:

Vic: "We're big fans of Richard and Judy."

Richard and Judy: (in unison - patently delighted): "Are you?"

Bob: "Yes. Every morning we put on our leopard skin underpants, pull them up really tight and settle down to watch Richard and Judy."

(long pause)

Judy: "I think it's time for a commercial break."

"It was strange," says Reeve. "We went because we'd been fans for five years. Literally every morning. But Judy had obviously been told that we were likely to cause trouble. She was very suspicious. At one point, they asked us what we liked watching on TV and we replied Dad's Army. Judy said, 'This conversation is too mad. I can't handle it.' And she changed the subject."

"But we weren't making fun of them," adds Mortimer. "We were intending to have a serious discussion about Dad's Army."

As a viewer one felt that a struggle was going on behind the scenes, that the show's staff were divided between those who felt the need to move with the times, and those antipathetic to change. More recently, however, Reeves and Mortimer have been rebooked, with greater success. Both camps, says Mortimer, made allowances.

Evidence that This Morning has finally embraced student culture now appears every morning in the show's opening titles: a shot of Pulp's Jarvis Cocker singing a song on the show.

"Jarvis is definitely the sort of person we want," says Jeff Anderson, editor of This Morning. "We've got a huge student following. We're cult viewing in campuses across the country. More 16- to 24-year-olds watch us than watch The Big Breakfast. Half a million ABC1s."

There is something strange about targeting an audience who enjoy shows like Richard and Judy for all the wrong reasons; who get a giggle outof this vicarious insight into the world of the Middle England housewife. The real appeal of these shows lies not with their ability to book Pulp, but with the fact that Richard and Judy are a slightly exaggerated representation of us: their problems are irksome - and as inconsequential - as our problems. Anne and Nick were famous before they became Anne and Nick. They were different - TV people. Richard and Judy are what they appear to be.

"They aren't outsiders," says Jeff Anderson. "They aren't a clique. It isn't like watching Tarby and his mates on the golf course. They live in Manchester, for a start."

But they are about to move to London. "Yeah, but they've still got four kids. They still have to be in work by 8am. They don't socialise with celebrities. When they meet a big star they are as awed as the viewers are."

This is a vital element to daytime celebrity: the fact that stars come from nowhere. Who remembers Kilroy when he was in politics? And now Dale Winton has achieved mainstream acclaim, a return to Supermarket Sweep would be awkward. The notable exceptions are Martyn Lewis, whose bargain archive quiz show, Today's The Day, has achieved ratings success, and the return of Michael Parkinson on Going For a Song. But these come across more as welcome house-guests than genuine daytime stars.

Consequently, Richard Madeley's notorious brush with shoplifting (he was found not guilty) was very nearly the unmaking of the couple's careers. This was something none of us could relate to. Richard and Judy's carefully conceived stance of "We're-liberals-but-we-empathise-with-all-sides" was shaken; the revelations disturbed the programme's small but hard-core group of fans. When the case was resolved, Richard dealt with it in the only way he knew how - by turning it into an issue for discussion ("It's outrageous that supermarkets are designed to allow people to walk through without paying''). But nobody was interested. Daytime TV fans don't want their hosts to share their personal problems. They want sanitised, sort-of problems. No American freak-show - it's Britain over the garden fence.

The staple fare of daytime's output, then, is invariably something like: should gay men be allowed to kiss in vodka commercials? What are the trials of being identical twins? ("All my life it's been Beryl and Cheryl this, Beryl and Cheryl that!")

And then they move - easily, calmly - on to the star guest, or the cook, or the weather. Or, often, over to another celebrity TV presenter, cook or weatherman. This is a self-referential world: TV presenters interviewing other TV presenters.

In last Tuesday's This Morning, for instance, during the item about the gay vodka kiss, the following occurred: Angry guest: "It's not natural. It's not the way our bodies were designed. Most children go through a homo-erotic phase, and this mustn't be encouraged."

Judy: "Have you been through a homo-erotic phase? Because I certainly haven't!"

Richard: "There's nothing like a vigorous argument to start the day, especially on a snowy morning like this..."

And we should not forget the obligatory "personal tragedy" sections - seven-minute weepies (or "shade", as Jeff Anderson puts it), sandwiched between the "light" of the celebrity spots and cooking tips.

In my own short brushes with daytime acclaim I would invariably encounter a nervous-looking person in the corner of the green room who would turn out to be the "real-life tragedy". These people are as regular a fixture as the wicker sofas; it was - is - always a lively green room game to try to identify what particular personal catastrophe they had bravely overcome. Usually, it was easy. One woman I remember was crouched, shaking gently, in the furthest corner from the complimentary biscuits. Bulimia? Full points!

"We don't just want a load of freaks," says Jeff Anderson. "There has to be a good reason. It would be easy to fill my seven-minute human interest slot - get the parents of the latest dead/abducted child. But where does that lead you? We had Leah Betts's parents, but that was different. They had a message."

"We are actively trying to get away from sensation seeking," says Jerry Johns, of Pebble Mill. "The audience did feel there was some exploitation going on. I can remember one time the mother of Michael Sams, Stephanie Slater's kidnapper, meeting her son's victim's family on the sofa. It really was ..." He pauses. "Actually, it really made extremely memorable TV. But we don't look for tabloid exposes. We want intelligent debate."

This intelligent debate is most likely to be found on BBC's Kilroy or ITV's equivalent, The Time the Place. Here low-tension semi-tragedies (divorcees who want their husbands back, alleged gay MPs who feel their privacy has been invaded, etc) share studio space with outraged members of the public, while the presenter wanders round with a microphone.

These shows may be more sedate and restrained than their famous American counterparts (few people actually get punched on screen), but they are compulsive viewing nevertheless - a cross between watching News at Ten and driving very slowly past a motorway pile-up. Will tampering with this formula - with all the daytime television formulas - gain new, younger viewers while holding on to the socially concerned ghoul vote?

Perhaps Kilroy and The Time, The Place should introduce the topic and let their obstreperous audiences decide if change always means evolution.