Media: Who do you want to wake up with?: Channel 4 feeds us snap, crackle and pop, while BBC1 sticks to news. How should GMTV compete? Martin Wroe on the battle for breakfast ratings

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The Independent Online
FORGET News at Ten. Forget BBC1's problems in recovering the mid-evening audience lost by Wogan and Eldorado. The fiercest battle for viewers this autumn will take place while a significant proportion of the nation is still in bed.

The success of Channel 4's The Big Breakfast, a year old next month, has unbalanced the previous straight rivalry between BBC 1 and ITV in the early hours. Unless large numbers of new viewers can be persuaded to get the breakfast TV habit, the pounds 34.6m a year that GMTV bid for the former TV-am franchise will become virtually impossible to sustain.

Peter McHugh puts a brave face on his achievements since taking over as director of programmes at GMTV: 'The most significant change we've made is that we've kept the viewers.'

Before he arrived in March, after the sudden dismissal of Lis Howell, the station was losing its audience. McHugh, who worked successfully with Greg Dyke to turn around the ailing fortunes of TV-am in the early Eighties, has stopped the rot but admits: 'No one ever has enough viewers. We need more to make us a more profitable company.'

In the first six months of this year GMTV lost pounds 10m, shared by its owners London Weekend Television, Carlton Television, Scottish Television, the Guardian and Walt Disney. TV-am made pounds 32.4m profit in its final year. Zenith Media, a research organisation, estimates that GMTV's revenue for this year will be pounds 62m, compared with TV-am's pounds 75m last year.

McHugh predicts that not only can he win back viewers lost to The Big Breakfast but he can also take them from BBC 1's stern Breakfast News: 'We need to show the BBC audience that they can get news from us and we need to show Big Breakfast viewers that while we don't have Zig and Zag (two puppet aliens) we do have the stories of the day, both light and serious.' However, the BBC's breakfast audience has remained remarkably stable over the past three years.

McHugh believes it is a common mistake to assume that the universe of breakfast viewers cannot be expanded: 'Channel 4 has shown with The Big Breakfast that it can be.'

But as Charlie Parsons, producer of The Big Breakfast, admits, the way it has done this is by eschewing all the existing traditions of breakfast television in this country: 'We set out not to make breakfast television but to make mainstream entertainment with a radical edge.'

Unfortunately for McHugh at GMTV, this is not an option open to him: for a start GMTV's franchise application promised six and a half hours of news every week. And Parsons claims that GMTV is in danger of compounding its difficulties by copying ingredients from The Big Breakfast. Just as the Channel 4 show sets viewers a trivia question before a commercial break, so now does GMTV. Parsons says the result is plain.

'The programme is fake, it feels dated, as if it's from the Fifties or Sixties and their fundamental mistake is in looking over their shoulder at The Big Breakfast, seeing good ideas and then using something similar. Sometimes I've even seem them involving their crew on camera - they don't need to do that, it all looks false.'

The Big Breakfast's critics deride its recipe of manic trivia, and say that it is too dependent on the zany charisma of its presenters Chris Evans and Gaby Roslin. They predict that its superficiality will not build audience loyalty in the long term, and that Evans will be an impossible act to follow if he leaves in 1995, when his pounds 1.5m three-year contract expires.

Yet Parsons argues that the very way the programme constantly changes itself is its strength.

'If a slot is getting boring we will change it. Our philosophy is different from that of GMTV, which will churn out the same thing all the time.'

His view that GMTV cannot expect to be both a news programme and a light programme is endorsed by Simon Waldman, deputy editor of Breakfast News at the BBC.

'GMTV is in a crisis of identity, trying to be more populist with silly games and trying to compete with us on serious news. It may have been possible for someone with the authority that Frank Bough used to have on Breakfast Time (Breakfast News' forerunner) to go from astrology to an earthquake story, but no GMTV presenter can do that.'

Peter McHugh's strategy relies on parent power to switch his stations fortunes. With The Big Breakfast, he argues, children have wrested the TV remote control from their parents: 'GMTV exists for those parents who will wrest the remote control back.'

If the strategy works then it will calm the fury that GMTV and the ITV companies feel at the rapacious way Channel 4 has eaten into their audience. The ITV companies are deeply resentful that Michael Grade's station should have done something so commercially damaging to them, particularly when Channel 4 is still connected to them by a 'safety net' agreement. Channel 4 responds that it is adhering to its remit by providing something that was not available at breakfast before.

It is a line endorsed by Simon Waldman: 'All breakfast television is pretty bland in places like the US but here we now have three services, all totally different.' And whether that's good for GMTV's investors or not, it means that viewers are finding more and more reasons for leaping out of bed and pressing the 'on' button.

(Photograph omitted)