This TV duck's no canard: Darkwing's mission is to win back the missing viewers, writes Martin Wroe

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The Independent Online
DARKWING DUCK, caped crimebuster of St Canard and one of America's most popular animated characters, landed at GMTV yesterday facing the most difficult case of his life.

Can Darkwing and his faithful feathered friends Launchpad McQuack and Honker Muddlefoot attract several hundred thousand viewers back to the troubled station which replaced its chairman last week and lost its director of programmes this week?

'I am the terror that flaps in the night. I am the scouring pad that scrubs the stains of crime.' said Darkwing, who will have a half-hour series every Saturday at 8.50am. But can he do a Roland Rat? When TV-am faced an even worse crisis in 1983, Greg Dyke and the plain-speaking rodent raised audiences from 200,000 a day to 1.8m.

At GMTV this week, they were insisting that Darkwing's arrival within days of Mr Dyke's emergency installation as chairman was coincidence. But the Duck Factor is one of Mr Dyke's narrowing range of options given the failure of the much-hyped F (for fanciability) factor.

Addressing readers of the Sun newspaper on Thursday, Roland Rat, fresh from Hollywood where he is being groomed for stardom, had a concise remedy for the ailing station: sack the presenters, scrap the news, slash the budget, smash up the set and 'bring in the real F-factor - fur'. Instead, they've gone for feathers but the strategy is the same - GMTV has lost younger viewers to Channel 4's 'zoo-television' Big Breakfast Show. Children can be the key to unlocking adult audiences in the early morning. 'He who controls the button controls the choice' the television adage goes.

'The duck is not a replica of Roland Rat,' insisted Peter McHugh, appointed director of programmes this week after Lis Howell resigned, 'but we do have to appeal to everyone because we have lost kids to Channel 4.'

Chris Locke, broadcast director at The Media Centre, the research wing of the advertising agency DMB & B, says that the duck's arrival is more significant than the station admits. 'They've got to get to the kids because the kids are the way to the parents in the morning. Stations need mascots. Sky One has DJ Kat and without Roland Rat TV-am would have been a disaster. Darkwing is the future.'

Darkwing comes from Disney, one of GMTV's five main shareholders. Mr Locke predicts that, if the duck factor works on Saturdays, Mr McHugh will introduce Darkwing during the week in tantalising snatches from 7.15am so that children turn on to GMTV. Then the parents, notably the mothers, will get into the habit. This is known in the trade as 'reverse build back' - and it was the key to Roland Rat's revival of TV-am.

But GMTV will have to do more than attract the young, according to one senior ITV executive who did not want to be named: 'A number of former TV-am viewers are not tuning in because it's not very exciting.'

Morale at the eight-week old station is rock bottom, not least among the much-criticised presenters. Mr McHugh concedes that this has affected programme quality. 'They have had the worst six months of their lives - their intestines have been examined, their love lives written about, the length of their calves measured and their humour criticised. It is demoralising if every time you open a newspaper you read that you are crap.'

Mr McHugh plans to replace 'creative tension' at the station with 'creative fun'. 'We have a great team of journalists here but when you are working 27 hours a day with someone looking over your shoulder all the time, the stress is reflected on screen.'

David Kogan, the managing editor, said that changes would include more good news stories and fewer showbiz interviews. 'We still need showbiz but more showbiz news, not just interviews with someone who's got a video in the top 90.'

GMTV's shareholders have deep pockets, but they have to find pounds 34.6m a year for the Treasury, the size of the bid that won them the franchise. The station will have to make changes quickly to win back its audience and boost advertising revenue. The Big Breakfast's audience is still growing, the more upmarket BBC Breakfast News looks solid and, in October, satellite viewers will be able to tune to the American children's station, Nickelodeon, on Sky from 7am to 7pm.

But if the duck factor fails, it could all be down to the rat. In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, the celebrity rodent admitted that 'Greg Dyke has asked for a secret meeting at a sewer near GMTV and I've sent my agent, Kevin the Gerbil.

'If they come crawling with a six-figure sum I might lower myself to returning to breakfast TV but otherwise I'm off back to my Malibu beach hut.'

(Photographs omitted)