Breakfast television, once a morning requisite as rich and piquant as a smoked haddock kedgeree, has turned into its modern day equivalent: a few mouthfuls of froth, taken on the move.
Earlier this month, ITV launched its hapless early morning show Daybreak for effectively the third time, bursting on to the schedule with all the crackle and pop of a soggy rusk. Hosted by Lorraine Kelly and Aled Jones in a studio drenched in the colour of Sunny Delight, it represents an almost total retreat from hard journalism, the essential ingredient which ITV promised to bring back when it axed GMTV two years ago.
Over on early morning Channel 4, they are showing double helpings of Everybody Loves Raymond, an American family sitcom which, as it finally wrapped in 2005, will be of limited use as a daily briefing on current affairs. Channel 5 is offering the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine.
So when I visited the BBC’s Media City in Salford last week to be told the corporation’s Breakfast has maintained its audience on “a straight line” since the move north in April, I was not hugely impressed. Given the extraordinary summer of news, and the BBC’s considerable advantage of exclusive coverage of the Olympics, it doesn’t seem much of a claim, especially when you consider the feeble state of the competition.
In four months from now, Sir David Frost will have occasion to open a bottle of Chablis to toast the 30th anniversary of founding TV-am, the station that gave birth to early morning television in Britain. Along with Frosty, TV-am’s presenting line up included Michael Parkinson, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford and Robert Kee, some of the most high-profile journalists of their generation.
The BBC show had its own big-hitters in Frank Bough and Selina Scott, who was poached from ITV’s News at Ten.
Channel 4 entered the field in 1989 with The Channel 4 Daily, replacing that with the Big Breakfast which, though it was hardly a source of serious news, increased the sense of fierce competition in the early morning market.
With all respect, the presenting team on BBC Breakfast – Bill Turnbull, Susanna Reid, Louise Minchin and Charlie Stayt – are some way from being the five star generals in the corporation’s news army and wouldn’t generate much excitement on a trip to the shops.
Yet the programme is head and shoulders above its chief rival. According to Adam Bullimore, the editor of Breakfast, there is almost no crossover between his show and Daybreak. “There’s a very small constituency of people who are watching the TV in a way that they are going to flick between us and them,” he says. “I think those numbers are tiny.”
Sky customers have the option of Sunrise on Sky News but it’s largely a vehicle for Eamonn Holmes. ITV’s introduction of a grumpy Adrian Chiles in front of a gloomy backdrop over a grey River Thames was its failed attempt to be more serious and journalistic in its approach to early morning television. That experience seems to have only encouraged executives to play it safe with increasingly bland “popular” output.
Audience research techniques are more sophisticated than ever – so perhaps this is what the public wants at the start of the day? Bullimore points out that his daily battle for viewers isn’t really a contest with other broadcasters.
“I think our big competition is life – it’s ‘I’m leaving for work’, ‘I’m going to let the kids have the remote’,” he says.
It’s probably to his advantage that most youngsters aren’t much interested in getting hold of the remote – they’re happier consuming their own media.
Bullimore disagrees that breakfast TV is on the wane. He points out that because morning audiences don’t have to watch from an armchair, breakfast shows are not having to “fight” against video recordings like later bulletins.
He is right about people’s busy lives. What has also changed since the days when breakfast television was the place to be is the very rhythm of the daily news cycle. Today news is more fluid. Technology means we can imbibe information at all times. If we missed breakfast television, we can instantly catch up with any story while we’re on the move, probably as we sip another mouthful of froth.
Coverage of Clegg's wife says it all
If they saw the coverage of the Liberal Democrats in Brighton last week, Samantha Cameron and Justine Thornton (wife of Ed Miliband) must view their own party conferences with a sense of trepidation.
Nick Clegg’s wife Miriam González Durántez was pictured on the front page of the Daily Telegraph – in a decidedly unflattering toothy photograph – with a caption that mocked her for spending her wedding anniversary listening to her husband making one of the most important speeches of his career.
Her choice of a white dress for the occasion left The Times agog. “A colour most British women steer well clear of unless they are getting married, or have recently acquired an impressive tan and are absolutely sure they won’t be encountering a glass of red wine soon”.
The Daily Mail described the outfit as “stunning”, by way of excusing its decision to publish a close-up picture of the Deputy Prime Minister’s wife’s backside on Mail Online. No wonder there aren’t more women in politics.