Channel 4 was always going to struggle to emulate the success of its own iconic early-morning show, The Big Breakfast, but how did it go so badly wrong? Glen Mutel analyses the channel's early-morning woes.
Live breakfast television shows are troublesome things. They're long, expensive, hard to get right and they're placed under immense scrutiny.It makes you wonder why broadcasters bother with them at all.Well, from January, Channel 4 won't be bothering. Its current morning show, Princess Productions' Rise, is limping towards its conclusion and C4's new director of television, Kevin Lygo, has decided that finding a permanent replacement is not an immediate priority, perhaps because there is no immediate answer. As a holding strategy, C4 will fill the 07.00 to 09.00 breakfast slot with repeats of both Friends and reality show The Salon, alongside a new run of US comedy Everybody Loves Raymond.C4 sources claim the broadcaster is keeping its options open but if the formula proves successful, it may become a long-term solution. And with nine series of Friends and (from quarter three) old episodes of The Simpsons, C4 will have plenty of appetising fare to serve up in the breakfast slot.But even if Lygo eventually opts for a new alternative, it will not share the live two-hour format of Rise or its predecessor The Big Breakfast, despite the latter serving it so well throughout the 1990s.During its 10-year run, The Big Breakfast pulled in an audience of up to 1.4 million, thanks largely to two charismatic double acts - Chris Evans and Gabby Roslin and Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen.By contrast, the viewing figures for Rise plummeted to 161,000 in the spring of this year. Throughout the first half of 2003, it was regularly outperformed by Five's children's offering Milkshake. It has recently rallied, gaining an average audience of 338,000 in November, but this hasn't spared it the chop.So what went wrong? "When C4 got rid of The Big Breakfast, it convinced itself it had solved the problem by inviting tenders," explains one source close to the pitching process. "The whole thing was higgledy-piggledy and they ended up with Rise, which by the time it came to air didn't seem to have a key selling point. It looked derivative from day one."Some argue that by the time The Big Breakfast ended its run, its format had lost its relevance. Ed Forsdick is managing director of Planet 24, the independent that produced the show. He says: "Twelve years ago you had to get everything in the morning from a one-stop shop. The situation is different today. Morning radio shows are getting better and you're also now competing with multichannel."Yet although radio is attracting bigger names and bigger salaries, it is not achieving the correspondingly bigger audiences. While some breakfast radio presenters - notably Radio 2's Terry Wogan - have seen their listening figures rise dramatically in the past three years, overall breakfast radio audiences are stagnant. According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, 38.3 million listeners tuned into morning radio in quarter three this year, compared with 38.8 million in 2001.However, C4's battle for the 16 to 34-year-old audience looks set to intensify. Radio 1 is hoping to give its audience figures a boost by placing Chris Moyles in the breakfast hot seat, replacing Sara Cox, while Johnny Vaughan is taking over Chris Tarrant's tenure at Capital in a£1.5m deal.And Emap, keen to hang on to breakfast host DJ Bam Bam, renewed his contract for a cool£1m.Rather than radio, it seems that C4 has been hit hardest by multichannels which are providing new alternatives at breakfast, particularly for parents and children, previously a key audience for The Big Breakfast on C4, as it wrapped around the Banana Splits.A former breakfast show executive explains: "Mothers can sit their three-year-olds in front of dedicated children's channels now. It means that the mum and kid audience that was the mainstay of The Big Breakfast is no longer there."Indeed, apart from a dip to 26.1% last summer, multichannel breakfast TV has maintained over 35% share of viewing since 2001. Multichannel achieved its second-highest share of 42.2% in April this year and last month stood at 38.7%, according to Barb figures. And this year, the combined audience for the BBC's two children's digital channels was 140,000 at breakfast, up 14%.However, multichannel has not had the same detrimental affect on the breakfast offerings of other terrestrials. Five has steadily grown share with its kids output, from 3.6% in January 2001 to 6.2% last month. BBC Breakfast averages a healthy audience of 1.2 million viewers, with share averaging around 26%, while GMTV's audience share has risen steadily since 2001, peaking at 1.6 million last September with an average share of 29%.This may be partly due to what is commonly known as the "Baghdad Bounce" - a new generation of viewers who got hooked on morning TV during the Iraq war. GMTV managing director Paul Corley says: "Breakfast TV is alive and well. It's one of the small parts of the TV schedule that's putting on viewers."Richard Porter, editor of the BBC's Breakfast, adds: "Both us and GMTV have managed to increase our figures, although some of that is due to C4's problems. Also, multichannel posed a bigger threat to C4 than it did to us."C4 head of commercial marketing research Hugh Johnson says that The Big Breakfast brought people to morning television, adding: "Ideally, we would like another Big Breakfast. But Rise wasn't performing, and if repeats of Friends can deliver a bigger audience of 16 to 34-year-olds it will work to our advantage."Some will argue that screening Friends in the morning is another example of C4 deserting its commitment to innovation. As one industry source puts it, "Big Breakfast became a programme that was emblematic of the channel and bolstered its schedule. But maybe C4 decided it can't be C4 in that time slot any more."Lygo may well surprise us and come back with something bold and innovative for breakfast later in 2004. And while the channel's current strategy may smack of caution, no one would thank him for cobbling together a hasty replacement for Rise only to fail spectacularly once again.As Forsdick concludes: "I think all it needs is a break. There's a new regime at C4 and this decision means it doesn't have to worry about breakfast for a while. It's the logical and sensible thing to do."