What went wrong at Ten Breakfast?
With the dust settled on Ten’s failed entry into the morning television market, Lee Zachariah sifts through the rubble to find out what really went wrong with Breakfast in a feature that first appeared in Encore.
A billboard tells a thousand words. In this one, a tall handsome man holds his hand over the mouth of a shorter, less handsome one, as a blonde presenter laughs uproariously and another smiles blankly at the camera. Ten was entering the race for the breakfast TV audience, the billboard told us, and it was placing all of its chips on a man whose number one selling point appeared to be a case of halitosis.
“It’s going to bring a little bit of life back into breakfast television,” Andrew Rochford announced at Ten’s 2012 upfront presentation. Rochford was the tall, handsome one on the billboard. “It’s getting a bit tired nowadays.”
Less than a year later, the presenter, who got his start in the media as a contestant on Nine’s reality series The Block, would quit the show after sagging ratings and palpable on-set tension. It is possible to analyse on-screen body language for signs of antipathy, but the casual viewer didn’t have to look too hard with Breakfast. A couple of months into the show’s run, Rochford had been moved away from the couch-based set and was presenting his own mini-Breakfast show off to the side, barely interacting with the other hosts. Four months in, he would be gone altogether.
Ten had been suffering a well-publicised slump in its fortunes. Ratings were down and cashflow was even further down. The network’s interim CEO, Lachlan Murdoch, and the Ten board eyed the $100,000-plus advertising revenue generated by Nine’s Today and Seven’s Sunrise and decided it was time to enter the fray.
When the show launched at the end of February 2012, CEO James Warburton had been in the chair for almost two months. He would last just over a year. Breakfast wouldn’t even make it that long.
“There are a lot of people with theories about what went wrong,” Rochford would tell The Sydney Morning Herald in February 2013. “My personal theory is that somebody who was publicised for pointing out the white elephant in the room became the white elephant in the room.”
The elephant was, of course, controversial host Paul Henry.
In a statement from Ten announcing the Breakfast presenting line-up, then chief programming officer David Mott said of Henry: “While you can’t ever be sure what Paul will do, when he’s on air, you know he’s going to tackle the elephant in the room.”
Henry was a New Zealand journalist and TV host who gained notoriety in his home country for being outspoken and controversial. He came to the world’s attention on YouTube with a clip from the TVNZ Breakfast show, in which he giggled at his own sexist and racist remarks about the unfortunately named Indian politician Sheila Dikshit. After the incident, the controversy grew, and Henry resigned from the show. Ten decided that this sort of firebrand was valuable, and opted to have Henry front Breakfast. The Kiwi told New Zealand press that his salary would be in excess of $1m with the offer to take up the post coming from Murdoch himself.
The appointment of Henry, many felt, doomed the show from the start.
“The problem was in the casting of Paul,” says one regular Breakfast guest who prefers to remain anonymous. “Paul is not a big, promotable brand. In fact, Paul is worse than any other brand you could have found in Australia. No-one knew who he was, and the moment anyone did Google him, all you could find were videos of Paul being a dickhead. So that’s the worst possible way of introducing him.”
Ten journalist Kathryn Robinson was named as the third presenter. Ten had attempted to ride the wave of hip, news-consuming youth audiences with The Project and wanted to continue this accessible style. Robinson’s credentials in news and financial coverage suggested a positive direction for the show. Unfortunately, her role soon became that of a fire extinguisher. With Rochford away from the couch, Robinson’s job boiled down to expressing faux outrage at Henry when he made the sort of outrageous comments Ten was hoping audiences would be tuning in for.
Behind the scenes, Ten appointed Anthony Flannery to head up its news and current affairs division. His resume included a stint executive producing Nine’s Today show. Coming on board to run the program was Majella Wiemers, who brought solid producing experience having worked on Nightline and Getaway as well as on-camera experience at Today filling in on occasion for weatherman Steven Jacobs. Although she had not been in charge of a breakfast program before, she’d seen a successful one work first hand. A week before the show’s launch, Wiemers told Mumbrella she wasn’t concerned about how the show would rate. “I haven’t even thought about figures. It’s never been brought up in any of my discussions. At no stage were figures ever bandied about,” she said.
Media analyst Steve Allen said the show would need to pull 100,000 viewers to make a solid go of it – a modest figure given competitors Sunrise and Today attract an average of 300,000 to 400,000 viewers.
With the show due to launch on February 27, the announcement of Kevin Rudd’s resignation as foreign minister saw production commence four days early.
It was all hands on deck for the first day – even Lachlan Murdoch was seen popping in to deliver a bottle of champagne to the control room as the show made its debut.
Breakfast’s first outing drew an average of 49,000 viewers, according to figures from OzTam, and during the first week of the program, Ten’s audience rose on average from the 24,000 its cartoons were drawing to 41,000 – a lift of 70 per cent. Fusion Strategy’s Allen said Breakfast’s ratings were “not a bad start. A bit soft and a long way to go”.
During the show’s short-lived run, the ratings would get worse not better, dipping as low as 26,000 viewers. The lack of audience would become a running joke for the presenters.
In a segment about social media analysis tool Klout, comedian Dan Ilic commented that he had more followers online than the show had viewers and during a live cross to a protest in Melbourne, David Noonan, national secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union offered, after a heated debate with Henry: “No apologies for the fact that your show has so few viewers.”
TENSION ON SET
In the early stages of production, regular guests were promised compensation for their time and producers briefed the talent thoroughly but that didn’t always make up for the at times awkward interactions with Henry. Naked’s Adam Ferrier was a semi-frequent guest on Breakfast. He says: “Henry was a reasonably prickly person and seemed somewhat disinterested in what I had to say, which was a little disconcerting. But the others seemed nice enough.”
Another show regular who experienced the tension between the on-air talent says: “If you cast an antagonistic person in the morning, you’ve got to surround them with people who challenge them and hopefully you get a frisson out of that which is engaging and fun to watch. The problem is that Andrew Rochford, who I think is perfect breakfast TV talent, was not a strong enough personality to take Paul to task. And one of the stupidest things – the beginning of the end – was when they moved Rochford off to the side to host his own bit in the café, which removes any chance of those two actually engaging, and bringing an audience into the conflict.
“Then you’ve got Kathryn, who is not stupid, but is made to look stupid. In real life, she’s incredibly bright, but she’s too busy rolling her eyes and tut-tutting Paul. It just wasn’t strong or incisive enough for it to work.”
Ferrier says this friction prevented the presenters, especially Henry, from resonating with Australian viewers and would be responsible for the show’s eventual demise. “That and potentially the show’s format. If you’ve got two breakfast formats on Seven and Nine, you need to have a somewhat differentiated offer to get people to change their viewing habits. And Breakfast never felt different enough,” says Ferrier.
But that wasn’t for lack of trying on the producer’s behalf. In fact, it seemed the only permanent fixture of the show was its persistent retooling and it wasn’t just Rochford’s incremental departure. As the show continued, the format changed to reflect its more newsy bent. The casual couch was replaced with a formal desk in the centre of Ten’s Sydney headquarters. On returning from the Olympics, weather presenter Magdalena Roze described the set as unrecognisable. Breakfast featured an endless wallpapering that made the show impossible to define.
At one point, the program was getting far more ratings as fodder on The Chaser’s ABC1 show The Hamster Wheel than it was on Ten. “I feel like we would have only gone for one-and-a-half seasons rather than two seasons if Breakfast hadn’t come along,” says The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello. “We were actually pulling back significantly on our Paul Henry coverage, because Paul is a little bit like heroin when you’re doing a media critique show. It’s very easy to get addicted. But if you have too much Paul Henry, as Breakfast discovered, you end up dead. So we enjoyed the high ride and Ten Breakfast was very much appreciated by us. And it’s nice to know it was appreciated by someone.”
Licciardello uses a soft drink analogy to explain how he sees the show’s failure. “Breakfast television has a very small audience to begin with and so you want to have as broad a show as possible in order to maximise the audience. But Breakfast was very much an acquired taste, and when I say ‘acquired taste’, I mean like Dr Pepper. Not a lot of people grew to acquire that taste, but I’m proud to say that I’m one of the few who did. I love Dr Pepper, and I miss Breakfast terribly.”
And it wasn’t just Hamster Wheel that needed Breakfast: Breakfast seemed to need Hamster Wheel. The rare moments of popularity or relevance the show enjoyed were when it was taken to task on Hamster Wheel and Media Watch for its more ridiculous segments.
But perhaps Breakfast’s ultimate breakthrough moment was the widely shared clip of comedian Shaun Micallef ignoring all interview conventions during a segment about Gen Y versus Gen ‘wise’ – Micallef representing the latter. It was the sort of absurdist moment you wouldn’t expect Micallef to be able to recreate outside of his own show as he spent the segment wandering about the studio. The clip has been viewed more than 80,000 times on YouTube, roughly the same number of viewers an average week of the show attracted at its lowest point. Yet producers were horrified by the segment as it demonstrated a total loss of control of the show.
During the clip, Henry alternates between trying to play along and trying to calm Micallef down. “Paul, are you going to point out the elephant in the room?” asks Micallef at one point. “I point out the elephant in the room too, you know. I shoot the elephant and I remove its tusks. That’s two steps further.” Like Rochford’s Sydney Morning Herald interview one year later, Micallef was skewering Mott’s comments about Henry’s appointment.
A producer on the show who also wishes to remain nameless acknowledges that the introduction of Henry was clumsy and mishandled, but does not consider this the most significant factor in the show’s demise. “There are just too many variables. It becomes too gossipy and unnecessary to talk about the trivial goings-on in the production because that happens in every show no matter what network.”
During a recorded podcast hosted by Mumbrella in June 2012, Henry highlighted how green the production team was. “The whole idea of producing three hours of live television five days a week is very new for them.”
Asked if he found working with an inexperienced team frustrating, he said: “In every way. Where do I begin? I’ll call for shots and I can imagine there are 20 people in the control room thinking ‘why didn’t that arse tell us what he was going to do?’”
On-set technicalities aside, the problem, says the producer, was more systemic. “A lot of it was the situation at Ten. I’m not in a position to talk about it in an informed way, because I’m not in on the board meetings, but from our point of view it felt like their agenda of getting eyeballs and advertising dollars just sucked any life out of the content. There were too many pressures. Too many people in charge,” says the producer.
In July, EP Wiemers would announce her exit from the show.
And Breakfast wasn’t the only issue on the table for Ten management. Also in July, morning panel program The Circle was given the boot. Then in August the ‘shiny floor’ show Everybody Dance Now was a major flop triggering a complete reworking of the evening schedule. With the network facing issues in numerous time-slots, someone’s head had to roll and chief programming officer David Mott announced his resignation at the end of August.
Ten continued to state they were in it for the long haul with Breakfast, denying the program was on the chopping block. In November, the network made a back flip finally putting the show out of its misery.
It’s tempting to see Paul Henry as the ultimate smokescreen. His hiring, his ‘outrageous’ on-air rants, his bloated salary seemingly contributing to the demise of the show, made it easy to lay the blame at his feet. Encore contacted Henry’s management but he declined to be interviewed.
Ultimately it was Ten executives that hired Henry, and they did so as part of a broader plan to pull audiences away from behemoths Sunrise and Today.
The idea to enter the breakfast television market may not have been doomed to failure, but the execution was.
LINING UP FOR SECONDS
In March this year, Ten announced the appointment of breakfast television wunderkind Adam Boland to the role of director of morning television. His remit is to develop the network’s 6am to noon time-slot. Boland is credited with revolutionising Australian morning television after creating the current Sunrise format which was largely copied by Nine’s Today.
Ten declined Encore’s request for an interview with Boland for this piece, however, he told Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph last month that Breakfast missed the mark because “you can’t say you are going to be different and then not be genuinely different”.
He is yet to reveal his plans for Ten’s mornings although he told the Telegraph: “I see a breakfast show and a morning show, but I don’t see them in the existing templates of Nine and Seven.
“When I designed Sunrise it was 2002. It is not a show I would be designing for 2013.”
Boland admitted to the paper he feels the pressure to succeed where the network previously failed. “There is expectation and I am losing sleep,” he said.
This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.