If The Word dies, can Big Breakfast survive?

Rhys Williams looks at prospects for the runaway breakfast-TV success now that its stablemate seems doomed
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The Independent Online
The higher they climb, the further they fall. And when your name is Planet, the tumble can assume stratospheric proportions. With the future of The Word looking as secure as a Nick Leeson derivative and rumours of a springclean to revitalise The Big Breakfast, the question arises: is one of the brightest stars in independent television, Planet 24 - responsible for both shows - losing its twinkle?

Channel 4 executives will shortly sit down and consider whether to recommission The Word after the end of its present run. They must decide whether the five-year-old programme has the vitality to sustain another run. According to Stephen Garrett, who commissioned The Word and is joint managing director of Kudos Productions, the show is at the end of its natural life cycle.

Jane Hewland, joint creator of the pioneering youth show Network 7, with Janet Street-Porter, says now The Word operates in an infinitely more competitive environment, with BBC2's Fantasy Football League providing unmissable viewing for the lagered-up crowd. And the left-field, late- night Eurotrash, presented by Jean Paul Gaultier and Antoine de Caunes, comfortably outwits and outshocks its stable-mate.

So with a big chunk of Planet 24's high-profile output looking as though it may shortly be spending more time in the programme vaults, the tension turns to The Big Breakfast.

Targeted to double the 250,000 audience ratings of its predecessor, Channel Four Daily, The Big Breakfast, which burst upon us in September 1992, boosted the early morning audience sixfold. Although GMTV reaches more viewers across the morning, The Big Breakfast regularly eclipses its commercial rival at the 8am peak.

Dismissed as "infantile hotch-potch" for the "terminally moronic", The Big Breakfast has developed into one of the programming sensations of the decade. The manic pace and camera-work is Oliver Stone without the blood, while full crew participation and items such as "Get Your Knobbly Nuts Out" suggests its antecedents are rooted in Eighties youth programming.

This is why Channel 4 went for it. But according to William G Stewart, the producer of The Price Is Right, The Big Breakfast is becoming a victim of its own frenetic innovation. "The more anarchic and chaotic a programme, the less chance it has of running for years. It's not about how good they are, it's about how they are able to stay the course."

A subscriber to the philosophy that a programme should out-stay its welcome to ensure that every last drop of entertainment is milked from it, Stewart believes time should be called on The Big Breakfast and The Word.

This may explain why Planet 24 is applying a new lick of paint to The Big Breakfast from next month. Ruling out any suggestion of a relaunch, Dawn Airey, controller of arts and entertainment at Channel 4, says viewers may start noticing a few changes in the spring. She says the channel is looking to lengthen the show and add several items.

It is also understood that there will be a change in the presentation line-up of Gaby Roslin, Paul Ross and Mark Little."The show is very robust. We're just giving it some new toys to play with," Ms Airey explains.

So there is an unmistakeable hum in the ether on Planet 24.The recently established Planet 24 Radio looks to be repeating the success of its television parent with three shows on the BBC. Straight Up on 5-Live follows the comics Andy Parsons and Henry Naylor as they travel the length of Britain in a straight line through veterinary surgeries, living rooms and peat bogs. A second series of Supertunes on Radio 3 hosted by Lord Onslow continues to explore the darker reaches of house, rap and jungle.

TV commissions include Delicious, a children's show for Carlton, a prime- time entertainment show for BBC1 (believed to involve Steve Wright) and episodes in BBC2's art series, American Visions.

The company has also just teamed up with Hat Trick, producer of Have I Got News For You and Whose Line Is It Anyway?. The joint venture was established to pursue programme opportunities on cable and satellite. But as the pitch for a new Channel 4 daytime strand (for which it has already been shortlisted) demonstrates, Planet Hat Trick is also poised to feature on mainstream channels. "We're there to collaborate on cable and satellite primarily," Denise O'Donoghue, managing director of Hat Trick, explains. "But if there are terrestrial opportunities, we would be stupid not to chase them."

Although it can be no guarantee of longevity, the fact that Planet 24 has begun recruiting for a graduate trainee scheme - something that even the BBC has fought shy of recently - suggests that the company plans to stick around.

Half of us seldom watch breakfast television, so the battle for those who do is fierce. GMTV has lifted its ratings a little since its mid-1993 nadir, but it is still below TV-am's vintage late-Eighties levels. C4's The Big Breakfast plundered many younger viewers. However, since Chris Evans left last September the show is down by 500,000 viewers a week. GMTV's weekday audience is almost 4 million a week above C4's but older, and less attractive to toy and household advertisers. The BBC's sober news programme is performing well.