A good breakfast 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1747

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

The launch of TV-am twenty years ago was highly significant for television as a whole.

It was a major step towards the eventual adoption of continuous 24-hour broadcasting for ITV (if technically not the ITV franchises) as well as the beginning of the end for the traditional morning startup sequence that various contractors used to start the day with (though it did survive in some regions, albeit in a truncated form, up to the end of the 1980s).

Breakfast television was something that had been tried in the past by various broadcasters such as Yorkshire Television (with Good Morning Calendar) and even the BBC with its one-off AM-UK programme as part of Swap Shop.

But before 1983 nobody had launched a permanent early morning television service in the UK. This reluctance was for various reasons; not least because broadcasters were uncertain as to exactly how many people would bother to watch a television screen whilst getting ready to go to work or preparing their kids for school.

Television was still expensive to produce compared with radio, plus there were still union issues (notably pay and working hours) that had to be dealt with. Radio therefore was still considered to be the natural medium for the early mornings since you didn’t have to pay attention.

A new service on ITV

In January 1980 the IBA announced that it thought that a breakfast TV service would be a viable proposition as well as meeting a public need, and the proposed service was envisaged to consist mainly of a news and current affairs service.

With this in mind, applicants for the new franchise (which was for the 6am to 9.15am slot for 7 days a week, but the estimated start time would be 7am) were quizzed as to what their intended working relationship (if any) would be with ITN. ITN itself was one of the initial eight applicants, but despite its undoubted strengths (in the IBA’s stated opinion) and the relative excellence of all the applicants, the contract was awarded to a new company called TV-am which was a consortium chaired by Peter Jay.

ITV was forced to delay the launch of its breakfast service until both the 1982 franchise changes had been given time to establish themselves as well as getting the launch of Channel 4 out of the way as well.

The original start date was going to be May 1983 but was then later brought forward to February when the BBC announced a showstopping new development – Breakfast Time. This spoiler programme was to run against TV-am and, crucially, launch before the new station in March 1983.

Much to the dismay of the commercial sector, this was not the deadly serious news programme that they thought the BBC would come up with, but was light-hearted and friendly in its approach, and featured presenters Frank Bough and Selina Scott along with weatherman Francis Wilson and astrologer Russell Grant.

The IBA hurriedly pulled back the launch date of TV-am from May to February, hoping to give the station a head start (and more income). The BBC, at that time with cash to spare, simply edged the launch of Breakfast Time back into January – a date TV-am and the IBA knew it was technically and financially unfeasible to match. After all, TV-am was an entire broadcasting organisation. Breakfast Time was merely a programme.

Different strokes

Due to the uncertainty relating to the whole idea of breakfast television, a separate contractor was appointed by the IBA to provide the breakfast service for ITV. This meant that the existing ITV franchises would be unaffected if the project was a complete failure but it would also mean that for the first time one contractor would be broadcasting to the whole of the British Isles (including Wales, which wasn’t the case with Channel 4) on an established commercial network and gaining the ad revenue for this period as a result.

Although TV-am (like GMTV) is a contractor that broadcasts using the ITV network, it was unusual in the fact that it wasn’t technically an ITV franchise but is still in a way considered to be a part of ITV.

Not having a ready-made template for UK breakfast television apart from short-lived ‘specials’, the broadcasters looked towards other countries (most notably America) for inspiration; Good Morning America was already well established and had set the standard for breakfast television in the US with its mix of news and features.

Therefore it was inevitable that elements of this show would be adapted by both BBC1’s Breakfast Time and TV-am for its Good Morning Britain, such as the use of a sofa, “Coming Next” captions and the use of an on-screen clock.

TV-am had been given the time slot from 6am to 9.25am for its programmes but initially didn’t use all of the time that it had been allotted. Indeed, to begin with it had to stop broadcasting at 9.15am.

This was not just to continue to enable the various ITV franchises to insert their traditional start-up routine for a 9.30 start, but also to enable all the transmitter links to be rerouted back to the various individual ITV regional franchises, which was a manual process that took several minutes until fully automated switching equipment had finally been installed several months later.

It wasn’t too surprising that TV-am got off to a shaky start, since breakfast television was a new concept for British television (BBC1’s Breakfast Time had only launched a few days before), and the aforementioned Breakfast Time also turned out to be a direct competitor to TV-am’s planned format as well as also having a small but significant head start.

Early TV-am ratings were abysmally low with an average of only about 100,000 viewers, which to put it in context is double the current viewing figure for Channel 4’s RI:SE, but nowadays both GMTV and BBC Breakfast News both have just under 2 million viewers each.

With figures this low (especially bearing in mind that there were only two channels broadcasting during this time slot), something had to be done quickly in order to somehow increase the viewing figures.

Down we go together

So TV-am succumbed to the inevitable requirement to make changes to the format of Good Morning Britain, and ex-LWT controller Greg Dyke was quickly brought on board to make the necessary adjustments.

Most notably, the Good Morning Britain programme plunged further downmarket in a unashamedly commercial move to attract more ‘punters’. The famous presenters – Angela Rippon and Anna Ford amongst them – were ousted as presenters and the pairing of Nick Owen and Anne Diamond was introduced along with a host of ‘innovations’.

One example of a TV-am ‘innovation’ designed to woo viewers was the reading out of the day’s bingo numbers from the tabloid press.

At the time there was a craze for bingo games in the tabloid newspapers, so a feature was introduced where the day’s bingo numbers were read out. Anyone who had one of the bingo cards that had been pushed through people’s letterboxes could therefore play the game without buying a newspaper.

The Roland Rat character was also introduced by Greg Dyke during this period which turned out to be a big success, and along with the other changes (some of which were purely cosmetic) TV-am gained in popularity as a result which saved it from short term oblivion.

It is all too easy to think of TV-am as being the title of the only programme that was shown during the morning (a myth that has been perpetuated by GMTV not having a particularly different name for its breakfast time programme).

But TV-am produced several other programmes other than Good Morning Britain for showing in its timeslot. Two examples of which are Daybreak (an hour of news reports) and an early kids programme called Data Run.

During the summer of 1983 TV-am also featured outside broadcasts during its Good Morning Britain programme which also added some variety to what was previously studio based content, and slowly but surely breakfast television became popular with a wide cross section of viewers looking for news, information and entertainment.

Viewers started to get used to the idea that if they switched on their TV screens before 9am they would have a programme to watch as opposed to a test card or a blank screen.

Since TV-am started broadcasting back in February 1983, breakfast television has been transformed from what was essentially a poorly-performing experiment into a staple part of British broadcasting with over 4 million viewers a day and has also directly affected the whole of television broadcasting as a result.

After a while it became obvious that breakfast television would become a permanent fixture and that it was only a matter of time before the start-up sequences employed by ITV franchises would be shortened then dropped altogether as the gap between TV-am and the following ITV contractor shrank to nothing due to the ‘danger’ (read: commercial pressure) of losing some of the audience switching channels during any ‘gap’.

Combine this with the subsequent development of nighttime programming in various ITV regions, and 24 hours a day broadcasting became the standard practice for ITV and subsequently for Channel 4 as well as Channel Five, BBC One and other channels.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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