The British television landscape today may well be something of an overcrowded shantytown, but barely 40 years ago it was still a wide open space with just a smattering of broadcasters sprinkled liberally enough not to spoil the view; when new people moved into the neighbourhood it was therefore front page news, and Channel 4’s arrival in 1982 was like a group of left-wing squatters setting up camp in a rural Tory parish, frightening the old ladies with their effing and blinding at all hours and shouting ‘Power to the people!’ at the vicar. However, within just a couple of months of the uproar and disruption the arrival of Channel 4 provoked, attention shifted to another new broadcasting venture destined to be beset with problems – breakfast television. After a handful of regional ITV experiments in the late 70s, the Beeb were first to go nationwide with a concept utterly alien to a British viewing public accustomed to being awoken by the humble wireless, with the ‘Today’ programme and the Radio 1 breakfast show traditionally attracting the largest audiences. Novelty value alone might temporarily persuade the masses to try the telly as a side-order with their Rice Krispies, but could it become as ubiquitous a feature of the schedules as in the States?
The BBC recruited one of their heavyweight anchors in the dependable shape of Frank Bough to head the team of ‘Breakfast Time’; future coke-snorting escapades in lingerie notwithstanding, Bough was a consummate broadcaster, a veteran of both ‘Grandstand’ and ‘Nationwide’ as well as a go-to man to present great sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup. Bough’s seniority was balanced by poaching the glamorous newsreader Selina Scott from ITN as well as promoting Nick Ross from BBC2’s ‘Man Alive’; oh, and David Icke was there as well. Anyway, ‘Breakfast Time’ was launched in January 1983 to generally favourable reviews, though many anticipated the cosy sofas and pullovers being usurped by ITV’s rival service, ‘Good Morning Britain’, produced by new company TV-am. If the Beeb had opted for a broadcasting bastion by electing Frank Bough team captain, TV-am went one better by assembling some of the most recognisable faces on British television at that time.
The so-called ‘Famous Five’ were Michael Parkinson, David Frost, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon and Robert Kee; and with a line-up like that, what could go wrong? Well, it didn’t help that the intended launch date of June 1983 was hurriedly brought forward to prevent the BBC getting too settled in the time slot. The same failure to negotiate royalties and rates for advertising with Equity that had left the ad breaks during the first couple of months of Channel 4 crammed with public information films also affected TV-am, severely reducing advertising revenue at the time of the station’s re-jigged and rushed launch date of February. TV-am were also thrown by the BBC’s unexpectedly casual approach to presentation on ‘Breakfast Time’ and didn’t have time to develop a similar style. ‘Good Morning Britain’ seemed stiff and starchy, there was little or no on-screen chemistry between any of the Famous Five, and ratings rapidly went into freefall.
TV-am off-camera quickly became a compelling soap opera far more interesting than any of its televised output, with high-profile sackings and a dramatic boardroom coup at the company making those first few traumatic months of the station a gift for Fleet Street. Although TV-am’s unlikely saviours turned out to be Anne Diamond, Nick Owen, Greg Dyke and – above all others – Roland Rat, the chaotic beginnings of breakfast television on ITV served as a lesson to any future broadcasting endeavours which imagine simply throwing together a bunch of household names assumes their very presence will ensure quality TV when that ain’t necessarily so. Am I alone in seeing the ghosts of TV-am currently haunting the latest television station to have been launched with familiar hyperbole, only to undergo similar problems both on and off-screen? I’m talking GB News.
The much-heralded ‘Anti-Woke’ alternative to the mainstream news output of the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky, GB News was as dependent pre-launch on Andrew Neil and his impeccable broadcasting credentials as TV-am was on David Frost in 1983. Like Frost before him, Andrew Neil is perhaps the premier political interviewer of his generation and one of the few people in British television with the kind of clout and CV to ensure the prospect of GB News would generate interest in anticipation of a serious, valid and much-needed fresh voice on the overwhelmingly left-leaning landscape of television news in this country. Hopes were high that this could be not so much the ‘alt-right’ UK equivalent of Fox News that its somewhat hysterical pre-launch detractors on social media predicted, but a non-partisan option for people happy to hear all sides of a debate rather than the same old hymn-sheet everyone else was singing from. The ratings on the opening night seemed to vindicate the hype but then, as with TV-am, things began to go wrong.
In its early days, TV-am suffered several on-screen cock-ups that made it appear amateurish and cheap, none more so than in its infamous coverage of the 1984 Brighton Bomb at the Conservative Party Conference. Whilst the BBC had camera crews on hand to transmit the drama to the nation, TV-am had to make do with the voice of John Stapleton on the telephone, giving the station the look and feel of an insignificant regional ITV company rather than a national broadcaster. Meanwhile, GB News has undergone its own persistent ‘technical issues’ that have made the station something of a laughing stock in terms of is ramshackle presentation; like TV-am before it, GB News was launched prematurely and, just as TV-am struggled to receive revenue from advertising at the time of its launch, GB News has had its own problems with advertising, experiencing a withdrawal of numerous Woke-friendly companies unwilling to advertise their wares on the station. And, just as the Famous Five quickly vanished from ‘Good Morning Britain’ when viewer numbers plummeted, Andrew Neil has gone AWOL from GB News, fleeing across the Channel barely a fortnight after the station’s launch as ratings often fell below zero.
Stories of backstage tensions between Neil (also chairman of the station) and the GB News chief executive (and ex-boss of Sky News Australia) Angelos Frangopoulos have abounded ever since Neil’s extended holiday; the resignations of senior executive producer Gill Penlington and director of programming John McAndrew – allies of Neil and boasting enough of a serious news pedigree to give the station credibility – have also strengthened the hand of Frangopoulos in his alleged ambition to push the station further to the right. Sliding ratings seem to have been arrested by recruiting Nigel Farage to host his own show; and whilst it could be said that Farage might turn out to be GB News’s very own Roland Rat figure, sources continue to insist Andrew Neil will be back in September.
By the back end of the 80s TV-am’s style proved successful enough for the BBC to abandon its sofas and re-launch ‘Breakfast Time’ as a televisual equivalent of ‘Today’, going down the hard news road. However, despite winning the favour of Mrs Thatcher during a notorious industrial dispute in 1987 and turning its fortunes around, TV-am still lost the ITV breakfast franchise in 1992. It’s very much early days for GB News – even now it’s only at the same point in terms of time on-air as TV-am was at in April 1983 – so rumours of its death could be said to be greatly exaggerated. At the same time, for many the presence of Andrew Neil was a signal that this station could well be worth investing in. Without him, is it merely a TV version of Talk Radio? Perhaps as long as the anchor is away, the jury will remain out.
© The Editor