More than 20 years ago I was asked to join TV-am, Britain's first commercial breakfast show, three months after it had been launched. At the time its ratings were seen as pitiful, and I was lured away from my job at London Weekend Television to become the breakfast station's programme head with the task of saving the station from going bankrupt.
My job was straightforward. I had to boost the ratings of the weekday breakfast show from the pitifully low peak quarter-hour figure of 100,000 viewers it had achieved since its launch. Within six months, with the help of a new presenting team, some revitalised executives, the Diana Dors diet and the infamous Roland Rat, we had succeeded. Our peak quarter-hour audience went past the million mark and we had overtaken the BBC's Breakfast Time, which had launched two weeks before TV-am back in February 1983.
So why is all this relevant now? The answer is that I've been fascinated by the war of words between the BBC and Sky over which of their 24-hour news services is the most successful. Both sides have been claiming how well they are doing and that they are beating the other.
The spat between the two started when Sky spent millions relaunching Sky News. Ironically, the viewing figures showed that immediately after the relaunch the ratings for BBC News 24 went up and the figures for Sky News went down.
But what's remarkable about the battle of words is that it is all about ridiculously small figures. In 1983, TV-am was rightly derided with adjectives such as "failing", "ailing" and "disastrous", because its peak quarter-hour figure was only 100,000 viewers. Yet a quick look at the figures for both 24-hour news services shows that neither are getting anywhere near even the numbers TV-am was getting in those early disastrous months.
Sky's average peak figure in the first eight months of this year was 70,000 viewers at around 9am and again at 5.45pm, while News 24's was 80,000 at 6pm. (In the period between six and nine in the mornings, the BBC runs the same breakfast service on News 24 as it runs on BBC One, so it's impossible to measure the News 24 figure alone). This means that even at their peak the two services between them are being watched by fewer people than live in Basingstoke!
Of course, the comparison with TV-am is not exactly fair as it was available in every home in the country in 1983, and the two news services are only available in the 65 per cent of homes that have digital television today. In 1983, multichannel TV in Britain was still only a glimmer in Rupert Murdoch's eye, so there was much less competition. On the other hand, this was the very start of breakfast TV in Britain; people were not used to turning on the telly that early in the day.
Either way, a look at the audience figures for the two news channels makes pretty depressing reading. Sky has clearly spent a lot of money persuading the former GMTV presenter Eamonn Holmes to join Sunrise, their breakfast show. He arrived in a fanfare of publicity. Now, Eamonn is a good and popular presenter - his Jet Set programme on Saturday night is the most successful of the BBC lottery shows - but his impact at Sky has been small. Although Sky's breakfast ratings appear to have increased by 15 per cent since his arrival, that's just 10,000 extra viewers.
Now, when there's a really big news story around, many more people tune in to both 24-hour news services. But the average figures still make the start of TV-am look pretty spectacular. If either service had to pay its way commercially, I suspect neither would exist - which is why the rumour is that ITV is preparing to scrap its own 24-hour rolling news service, which is much cheaper to produce than the other two but has half their ratings.
If this happens, ITV News will be a victim of the success of Freeview. When it started, ITV was looking for something cheap to put on one of its three Freeview slots. But slots on Freeview are now difficult to obtain and very valuable - they are being sold for about £10m a year for each slot - so running a loss-making news service doesn't make sense for ITV. It could either sell the capacity or use the ITV News slot for one of its own new channels.
According to recent research at Cardiff University, the perception, particularly among journalists, is that Sky is winning the battle of the news channels because it cleverly claims more breaking stories than BBC News 24. According to the research, 80 per cent of the stories on which Sky bangs up the "breaking news" logo are no such thing; they were diary stories that were entirely predictable. It seems BBC News has still to learn that it's not just the way you tell your stories that matters, it's the way you sell them.
Anyone on Ferrari wages?
There are always people who put hope ahead of experience in the television business. One such person is Andy Bell, a producer on Panorama. Bell recently sent an e-mail around the staff of the BBC current affairs department with the unlikely request for any member of the department who owned a Ferrari to lend it to him for use in his next film.
It seems such a hopeless request. Since when did anyone in BBC current affairs earn enough to have a Ford Mondeo, let alone a Ferrari? Not that Bell didn't recognise he faced an uphill struggle. In his e-mail he said that it didn't have to be a proper Ferrari, a Ferrari body welded on to an old VW Beetle chassis would do.
Now that's beginning to sound more like the BBC we know and love.Reuse content