Breakfast TV: Snap, Crackle or Flop? 

25 June 2018

From the Sunday Express Magazine for 15 November 1981


Behind hoardings beside the Regent’s Park Canal in Camden Town, the snap, crackle, pop of demolition work can now be heard. It is the first physical stirring of national breakfast television in this country.

Nine months after being awarded the coveted commercial network franchise, TV-AM, the star-spangled company led by thrusting Peter Jay, is lavishing £10 million on a brand new studio complex.

It is from this choice site that at 6.15 on a May morning in 1983 TV-AM will start transmitting a daily three-hour televised “morning newspaper” over the independent television network. Breakfasting Britons will get their first taste of a phenomenon long familiar to Americans: a dawn diet of world, national and local news, breezily interspersed with shopping tips for housewives, weather and traffic reports, interviews and titbits of information and gossip which, in the words of one breakfast TV enthusiast “sets the agenda for the rest of the day”.

Peter Jay. Photograph by Darryl Williams

There are those, however, who say it will not work out, partly for lack of demand, but more particularly because of the problems which lie across the path of TV-AM. The first argument — that Britons are quite happy with radio in the morning, thank you very much, and don’t want the television blaring away while they are spilling the coffee or cutting themselves shaving — infuriates Peter Jay, the young former ambassador to Washington and, earlier, TV pundit.

“Absolute insanity!” he told me. “People who doubt that you can sell a newspaper — which is what it is — to the greatest newspaper-reading public in the world at breakfast time, the traditional time for newspapers, on the most attractive medium of communication there is, such a person would doubt you could sell milk to cats!”

“Not even £10 million will create a building big enough to accommodate all those egos”

He may be right — and in the television world it is generally believed he is — but not everyone shares his confidence that TV-AM itself is going to prove successful. Obstacles include:

• ITN, the obvious first choice as prime supplier of news to TV-AM, is at present seeking to impose totally unacceptable conditions. Even if they were acceptable, the asking price is likely to be staggeringly high. In earlier talks with a rival consortium ITN had suggested as much as £6 million a year.

• Despite the protestations of Director General Sir Ian Trethowan that breakfast TV is a low priority for the BBC, the majority view is that once the £50 colour licence battle is out of the way, the corporation will be forced into a war for the daily dawn ratings with a fully fledged television programme of its own.

Should this happen, the BBC’s vast news and current affairs organisations would be brought to bear on the fledgling TV-AM, like a Goliath doing battle with a David who was still looking for his sling.

• Alan Sapper’s Association of Cinematograph, TV & Allied Technicians has yet to have serious discussions with TV-AM. Yet it was the union’s crippling demands for “unsocial hours” that helped to undermine Yorkshire Television when it dipped a cautious toe into breakfast TV four years ago. According to one report, 18 times the basic rate was demanded for some technicians.

Although Sapper appears willing to accept that the new franchise creates an entirely new situation, there is nothing to suggest he will not be very tough when he eventually sits down with Jay and his band of “united artists”.

United Artists, the name adopted in the twenties by the Hollywood production company that brought together the talents of Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Snr, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffiths, is the term half-humorously adopted by Jay to describe TV-AM. The company includes David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Anna Ford, Robert Kee, Angela Rippon (and, until recently, Esther Rantzen) — all of whom will be its presenters.

It is on this glittering line-up of talent and TV experience that TV-AM is banking for success. Certainly the sight of so many famous television faces, supported by the eloquence and reputation of Peter Jay himself, helped tip the franchise to TV-AM when the “united artists” all trooped into the IBA last year.

Whether they will continue to work effectively together remains to be seen. One defeated rival for the franchise gleefully predicts a glass-shattering clash of temperaments when the nitty gritty of programme planning begins.

“Not even £10 million will create a building big enough to accommodate all those egos,” he said.

The £10 million studio complex, plans for smaller studios in Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff and eventually Birmingham and Belfast, and the general free-spending approach of TV-AM, typified by the massive salaries to be paid to the five presenters (“presenter programmers”, as they are officially known) pose yet another question mark over the company. Can TV-AM show a profit ?

Harold Lind, the advertising consultant who researched the market for the rival AMTV consortium thinks not. Lind says Jay is relying on revenues three or four times those predicted for AMTV 18 months ago. Lind’s estimates were conservative and he concedes that TV advertising has held up much better in the recession than he predicted it would. “But no way will they get three times my estimate,” Lind told me. “And my figures assumed the BBC would stay out. I now believe they will come in.”

If all this causes Peter Jay to toss and turn in the night, he gave no evidence of it when I met him in TV-AM’s handsomely-appointed temporary offices on the ground floor of a Mayfair town house.

Sitting in shirt sleeves at a leather-topped desk, the wall behind him papered with diplomas, certificates of merit, autographed photographs and other tributes, he brushed aside Lind’s dire prediction with a wave of an arm.

“How could someone with my force of personality exist on the bridge of the ship with somebody else”

“We are old friends — we were students together,” Jay said. “We consulted him and we consulted other experts and we think Harold is wrong. We talked to the advertising agents and the advertisers themselves and, to be honest, we got figures so large they were embarrassing.”

The prospect of a dawn raid by the BBC also fails to rattle him. “I believe they will do it and I welcome it. There is this sour British attitude that if somebody does something, somebody else will suffer. That is (a) wet and (b) totally contrary to the evidence of the communications industry. What happens is the cake grows larger.”

Tall and good looking in a craggy sort of way, Jay is secure in the conviction of his personal brilliance. Time Magazine once named him as one of the 150 future leaders of the world, and he appears intent on keeping this rendezvous with destiny. To hear him talk, building a “small” (his word) television empire, with a projected turnover of around £20 million, is only a stepping stone.

Jay, who was invited into TV-AM by David Frost only a month before its application was submitted, has been running the company almost single-handed. There were only three other full-time employees when I saw him; a director of finance, Jay’s personal assistant (“a sort of flag lieutenant”) and a secretary. Other key executives were working out their notices before joining. Eventually there will be around 200 employees.

Jay originally intended to be part-time chairman, with a chief executive running the company. In the event he agreed to fill both posts himself. He is refreshingly free from false modesty and he grinned as he recounted how the change took place.

“We were much teased at our interview with the IBA on how on earth — it was very flattering to me — how on earth someone with my force of personality could exist on the bridge of the ship with somebody else. In the end it was agreed that I should become chairman and chief executive.”

I said I was fascinated by the role of his “presenter programmers”. What was expected of them? Was it true that each had been allowed to buy two per cent of the shares for £22,000? [£90,000 in 2008, allowing for inflation] Was Esther Rantzen really to have received a fee of £112,000 [£460,000] for her six-months-a-year stint with TV-AM, as I had been told? And was this typical?

He was glad I had asked. A lot had been written about their remuneration, including an entirely false story that each had received £10,000 [£41,000] as an inducement to appear in person at the IBA. Salaries were confidential, but were “substantial and proportional to the reputations and talents of these people”. The individual shareholding also was confidential, but the 12 individual “founders” of TV-AM, who included the six presenters, had taken up about a third of the shareholding. The rest had gone to the other founders, six corporate institutions.

By far the greatest attraction TV-AM had for the magnificent six—or five, as they have become with the departure of Esther Rantzen — was, however, the opportunity for such “well-rounded journalists” to work on their own shows. As members of the Programme Committee they would make a journalistic contribution far beyond that of a normal presenter.

“They feel passionately about this, and I feel passionately about it.” So passionately, apparently, that they have agreed to report for work at 9.30 in the evening and work through the night. “A 12-hour shift with probably a slug of sleep in the middle,” Jay called it.

“TV-AM will be able to background events so that viewers will say ‘gosh, now I see what this is all about’”

Would they stick it, I ventured? Word at the BBC was that it proved difficult to get some stars to the studio at 9.30 in the evening in a chauffeur-driven car. Were TV-AM’s unsocial hours the real reason for Esther Rantzen’s second thoughts — and would there be other defections?

A quick shake of the head. No, definitely not. These were “big, grown-up, professional people, who have undertaken a professional obligation”. Esther Rantzen had been a case apart. The arrival of a third child had made her schedule unmanageable. It had been possible with two, but not with three.

“Esther and I were students together,” Jay said, bestowing the accolade of shared scholarship for the second time in the interview. A slight pause, then: “We were male and female Joint Television Personalities of the Year in 1964, as it happens. So we are old friends. We spent many emotional hours in the summer trying to find a way round her problem. There was none.”

Jay’s greatest difficulty could prove to be his negotiations with ITN. Here he is to a certain extent a victim of his past. Some years ago he wrote a series of articles in The Times critical of television journalism for drawing a dividing line between news and current events. The effect, he claimed, was confusion rather than enlightenment, a thesis he enshrined in the phrase “bias against understanding”. TV-AM’s antidote, its declared “mission to explain”, was central to its application and helped to win the franchise. In announcing the award, the IBA chairman, Lady Plowden, said Jay would now be free to correct the “bias against understanding”.

Jay wants an agreement with ITN under which there would be co-operation between the newsgathering facilities of both organisations, but with each free to use the material in its own way. There would thus be “sovereignty over outputs and co-operation over inputs”.

Only in this way would TV-AM be able to background events “so that viewers will say ‘gosh, now I see what all this is about… I have been seeing unemployment figures for years and years, but only now do I see what they really mean’. Or, if there is a war somewhere, ‘Now I see why those people are fighting those other people’.”

For the moment there is deadlock with ITN. Maintaining that it is a news-publishing organisation, not a news agency, it says that as a matter of principle it can only supply a fully packaged news service on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Jay is hopeful that an agreement will eventually be worked out. If not, TV-AM will go it alone.

The company will in any case have its own “satellite bridge”, bringing in TV reports from overseas, there will be the usual wire services, support from such organisations as Visnews, a tie-up with an American network and TV-AM’s own news-gathering team, including at least six or seven ENG units around the country.

“So this is not a life or death issue. If they feel they don’t want to co-operate — and it is their right to decide — then, okay, our contingency plans are well advanced and they will be implemented.”

If all those tributes behind Jay’s desk say anything, it is that he is accustomed to succeeding. Breakfast television — his breakfast television — is, he believes, written in our stars and TV-AM means to make a meal of it.

You Say

1 response to this article

Mark Jeffries 26 June 2018 at 10:25 pm

I assume that the TVam studios in Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester were never to be.

Ian White, TV-am 15 October 2018 at 9:38 pm

TV-am initially had studios in Cardiff, Manchester, Glasgow, then Belfast and Birmingham. Cardiff was used on the very first morning. After 1988 new studios opened in Newcastle, Bradford and Peterborough.

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