Opinion

How Sunrise won its globe-trotting gamble

tim burrowes landscapeDespite Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension while its hosts were overseas, Sunrise’s big global broadcast has paid off, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes   

Last Monday night, I thought that Seven had made a terrible mistake.   

While Malcolm Turnbull was dramatically ousting Tony Abbott, the entire Sunrise team was flying away from Canberra at 900 kilometres an hour.

For Sunrise, there couldn’t have been a worse moment for a spill than on the second day of their five-city circumnavigation of the world.

Pell: The gamble paid off

Pell: No contingency plan, but gamble paid off

For executive producer Michael Pell the failure of the trip would have been hugely damaging to his credibility within the network.

But the numbers have since proved otherwise. The trek has delivered one of the breakfast show’s most emphatic weekly wins over Nine’s Today in many months.

The production challenges – and costs – of presenting a three-hour live show from a different country for five days in a row were huge. All five key presenters – co-hosts Sam Armytage and David Koch, sports presenter Mark Berretta, news reader Natalie Barr and weather presenter Edwina Bartholomew – made the trip.

But in TV terms, the winning margins have been just as huge.

Monday created some doubts.

Day One saw the Sunrise team in Dubai. How would the behind-the-scenes footage of the first leg of the journey go down with the middle Australian viewer? It’s hard to feel much empathy for somebody who’s telling you what a tough time they’re having, while they’re clearly sitting in Qantas business class. Shoe shopping in Dubai Mall can make for us-and-them viewing too.

But I was mistaken – Sunrise romped home in the ratings with some of its best numbers of the year. Monday’s metro audience numbers saw Sunrise beat Today by nearly 100,000. According to the OzTam data, the show won in all capital cities, and romped home in Melbourne.

Monday’s preliminary metro ratings:

Sunrise:

Five-city metro: 411,000

Sydney: 122,000 | Melbourne: 118,000 | Brisbane: 88,000:  | Adelaide: 40,000 | Perth: 43,000

Today:

Five-city metro: 317,000

Sydney: 120,000 | Melbourne: 92,000 |  Brisbane: 60,000 |  Adelaide: 24,000 | Perth: 21,000

But Tuesday was when I began to expect disaster for Sunrise. Naturally, Today made the most of the spill, putting hosts Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson in the wind on the lawn outside Parliament House in Canberra.

They were able to put tough questions to the politicians face-to-face, including accusing deputy leader Julie Bishop of having blood on her hands.

In a weird way, even Wilkinson being hit in the face by the wind-driven gazebo added to the drama. They also got to speak to Bishop first.

Ten minutes later, the difficulties of being the other side of the world certainly made covering the politics difficult for Sunrise.

The satellite delay in quizzing Bishop was quite a contrast. Early in the conversation, the London-based presenters tried a couple of times to interrupt her with a tough question. With satellite delay, that’s always painful, with people talking over each other, or stopping speaking at the same time.

So in a gift to any politician, they had to allow her talk at length until she actually left them a gap to ask another question. This then became an awkwardly long pause.

But the audience cared less about the politics than you might think. I suspect that more viewers enjoyed footage of Kochie’s Heathrow reunion with his daughter than cared to hear yet another rehash of who had betrayed who.

Despite being in the wrong hemisphere for the Prime Ministerial action, Sunrise won again, albeit by a closer margin, and a dead heat in Sydney.

Tuesday’s preliminary metro ratings:

Sunrise:

Five-city metro: 397,000

Sydney: 121,000 | Melbourne: 111,000 | Brisbane: 79,000 | Adelaide: 47,000 | Perth: 39,000

Today:

Five-city metro: 339,000

Sydney: 121,000 | Melbourne: 98,000 | Brisbane: 73,000 | Adelaide: 28,000 | Perth: 19,000

Interestingly, Tuesday was also ABC News Breakfast’s best day since its launch, with an average metro audience of 150,000 on ABC 1 (plus a further 104,000 on News24), so chances are this took some audience from both of the commercial rivals too.

Meanwhile, Tuesday was also where things began to get interesting behind the scenes for Sunrise, in what was always going to be the tightest leg of the trip.

After finishing in London, they needed to make the seven-and-a-half hour transatlantic trip from London to New York.

But in a terrible ad for British Airways, the flight was late to board. Then there was a problem with a fuel gauge. Then, having missed the Heathrow takeoff slot, there was a wait to get airborne.

This time the behind-the-scenes business class footage was a bit more compelling as the presenters relocated to the exit row to have their on-air makeup done before they landed.

Meanwhile, despite Pell having told Mumbrella the week before that there was no contingency plan, they had to start preparing one.

Morning Show hosts Larry Emdur and Kylie Gillies got the pre-dawn emergency phone call and were asked to stand by to present the show from Sunrise’s normal Martin Place studio in Sydney if Kochie and co didn’t make it through the New York traffic.

In the end they got there, with minutes to spare.

And the winning margin for Sunrise across the five capital cities was once again nearly 100,000

Wednesday’s preliminary metro ratings:

Sunrise:

Five-city metro: 389,000

Sydney: 127,000 | Melbourne: 117,000 | Brisbane: 68,000 | Adelaide: 36,000 | Perth: 41,000

Today:

Five-city metro: 298,000

Sydney: 106,000 | Melbourne: 70,000 | Brisbane: 77,000 | Adelaide: 21,000 | Perth: 24,000

That win in Brisbane on Wednesday was Today’s only victory in any metro market during the week.

Sunrise five countries five days

By Thursday, Sunrise was just over the border in Canada, at Niagara Falls. Sightseeing and soakings on the water generated another comfortable metro win (with a dead heat in Brisbane) for Sunrise.

Thursday’s preliminary metro ratings:

Sunrise:

Five-city metro: 374,000

Sydney: 114,000 | Melbourne: 110,000 | Brisbane: 70,000 | Adelaide: 41,000 | Perth: 39,000

Today:

Five-city metro: 300,000

Sydney: 95,000 | Melbourne: 79,000 | Brisbane: 70,000 | Adelaide: 27,000 | Perth: 29,000

The final lap was Cancun in Mexico, where there was certainly an end-of-the-week, on-the-beach feel to the show.

Friday’s preliminary metro ratings:

Sunrise:

Five-city metro: 373,000

Sydney: 131,000 | Melbourne: 99,000 | Brisbane: 66,000 | Adelaide: 40,000 | Perth: 37,000

Today:

Five-city metro: 285,000

Sydney: 106,000 | Melbourne: 85,000 | Brisbane: 57,000 | Adelaide: 17,000 | Perth: 19,000

Overall, it was a crushing victory across the week, and vindication for Pell.

So with hindsight, it looks like a no brainer to take the risk.

But imagine if the expensive gamble had failed. TV can be quite unforgiving when executives take risks where there are no contingency plans

Back in 2011 Ten’s then programming chief David Mott told Mumbrella he had “no Plan B” if The Renovators failed. It failed, and within months he was gone.

The stakes were all the higher because, not by coincidence, last week also saw Seven’s relaunch of its 2015 prime time programming. (Successfully, as it happens; Seven won the ratings week.)

And of course, it all had to be prepared in secrecy, so Today couldn’t respond. The project was only revealed with a week’s notice.

It was a similarly secret operation when Sunrise stole Today’s thunder last year, with a week-long US trip, getting in ahead of what had become an annual part of their rival’s offering.

It’s easy to turn your nose up at breakfast television because to those outside, it can look like trite, lowest common denominator fare.

But that doesn’t mean it’s as easy as it looks. It’s competitive and both shows fight for their audiences every single minute.

That’s why they invest in these expensive productions. That’s why they both do big daily cash giveaways.

It matters hugely to the networks, and by extension to the advertisers. If you want to talk to the family grocery buyer, breakfast time is the right time. Millions of dollars are at stake.

Today, it’s back to normal hostilities between Sunrise and Today.

And next week sees Today’s third outing of its We Love Australia Tour.

Somehow, I think there’ll be more to come from both sides. The bar in breakfast television has been raised.

Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella and has been an occasional pundit on Sunrise

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