Media: Not everyone's cup of tea: Maggie Brown sees problems of cash and content behind the GMTV reshuffle
Wednesday 24 February 1993
At the Camden Lock studios where TV-am's launch disaster in 1983-84 was followed by eight years of booming profit under Mr Gyngell, there is almost a sense of deja vu as GMTV, which recruited many of TV-am's staff for its own launch on 1 January, struggles to hit its stride.
Mr Gyngell is forthright about what has gone wrong: 'Frankly, they have the wrong presenters. Eamonn Holmes (who replaced the initial choice, Michael Wilson) is very good; he has warmth, family feeling. He needs to be matched up with a star. Fiona Armstrong (formerly with ITN) is a cold fish, a tough news presenter. Leopards can't change their spots.
'They thought TV-am was easy to copy, a matter of sofas. In fact, we had upholstered benches - people had to sit up. The hip-bone should never be lower than the knee-bone. Otherwise all you see is knees.
'GMTV needs a new set. Television has a grammar to it, which they don't understand. News must be formal. News is blue. It will never have authority if it is read against a sickly, garish pink, stippled background with half a bookcase poking out from the newsreader's head.' There is a shudder in his voice.
'Breakfast television has to be warm and friendly. It's got to flow. They got that wrong. The content is overproduced - too much film. It is not relaxed and comfortable. This is one of the great problems of British television - they spend all their energy on the content, not enough on the form.'
Nobody, however, not even Mr Gyngell, thinks history is repeating itself. We are not witnessing a media disaster on the scale of the original TV-am.
The departure this week of GMTV's programme director, Lis Howell, is part of the hazardous business of start-ups. 'Often you need one set of people to launch, another set to successfully deliver,' says one of GMTV's senior advisers. He also points to the exhaustion induced by working anti- social hours. Breakfast television is renowned for its ability to burn up creative staff.
Last week Harry Roche, chairman of the Guardian and Manchester Evening News, stepped down as chairman of GMTV in favour of Greg Dyke, chief executive of London Weekend Television. Both companies are shareholders in the breakfast station.
Content and presentational errors apart, GMTV has suffered on two counts, only one of which it can be blamed for. The first is financial: it has probably overbid for its franchise ( pounds 34.6m plus 15 per cent of revenue) and has run into an advertising recession. But, most critically, its thunder, audience and advertising share are being stolen by an unexpected newcomer, Channel 4's The Big Breakfast.
GMTV's business plan, Mr Roche observes, allowed for a growth of satellite television - which has turned out to be below expectations. But it did not anticipate the depth of the advertising recession, nor C 4's switch in tempo.
The competitive, populist touch of the C 4 chief executive, Michael Grade, has been reinforced by the arrival of Andrea Wonfor as controller of arts and entertainment. In September, facing the prospect of selling its own advertising for the first time, and unwilling to subsidise the breakfast slot, C 4 completely changed its morning programme, replacing the ultra- serious Channel 4 Daily with a wacky newcomer. The Big Breakfast, timed to take advantage of TV-am's wind-down, was initially discounted by its future opponents, who expected a messy version of the late-night youth programme, The Word.
Instead it was bright, fresh, energetic and appealing, and found a youthful star in the former GLR radio presenter Chris Evans. Charlie Parsons, executive producer of The Big Breakfast, says: 'With our bright colours and set we do make GMTV look a bit dull. I think their real problem is that the frequent local news inserts make it unwatchable.'
At first GMTV, determined not to alienate any of TV-am's loyal viewers, tried to brush off this competition, saying that its core breakfast audience of young mothers was unaffected. But the erosion of viewers - 14.5 per cent have been lost since GMTV took over - is now too serious to ignore. Raising audiences (and thus restoring advertising rates) is the first priority for Peter McHugh, the populist new programme director.
Mr Roche admits that by December, the month before GMTV came on the air, it was already clear to shareholders that it faced a much more difficult launch than had been expected. Now the programme is to be reshaped, with Mr Dyke taking a hands-on, semi-executive role while leaving the organisational side to the managing director, Christopher Stoddart.
Mr Dyke was largely responsible for devising the GMTV bid. Many have seen this as a form of revenge, for he was TV-am's editor-in-chief when Mr Gyngell took the helm in 1984, and departed shortly afterwards.
Now Mr Dyke wants an infusion of popular journalism, and items to hook viewers. He is echoing a new consensus among the upper echelons at GMTV which complains that the emphasis on inconsequential sofa-based chat - Michael Aspel and Lizzie Power discussing the problems of being a celebrity couple was one of the first items - has gone too far.
But will the new approach increase audiences? Very few people believe that the audience of 3 million a day hooked by TV-am at its peak in 1986 is attainable now, principally because of competition from The Big Breakfast.
A second factor must be GMTV's estimated pounds 30m running costs. It has an array of suppliers, including the Visnews/Reuter news service, Disney children's programmes, and Bazal Productions supplying consumer programmes. If revenue continues to be below expectations, its programme budgets will have to be pared to stem losses.
British television has produced three clear breakfast television choices. The question is whether GMTV, the newest and the market leader, can successfully relaunch itself in the middle-market.
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