The words “breakfast television” conjure a picture of two people, one man and one woman, sitting on a sofa in front of a coffee table, in what looks like the viewers’ own living room, talking about the news, introducing topical items and interviewing celebrities, with no item lasting long enough to distract people from starting their day.
This is not so much drawing up a stereotype as taking an average: all breakfast shows on British television since 1983, when the BBC’s “Breakfast Time” became Europe’s first TV breakfast show, include these elements in some way, and despite experimentation with these elements, like Channel 4’s anarchic “The Big Breakfast,” this average is pretty much the only format that has worked.
The show most representing this format was the first to be named “Good Morning Britain,” airing on ITV from 1983 to 1992, and was produced by TV-am, which had won the licence created to provide breakfast television on the network. It is best remembered as a lightweight and breezy mix of celebrity interviews and topical features presented by more celebrities, presided over by the likeable presenting duo of Anne Diamond and Nick Owen, later joined by Richard Keys, Mike Morris, Kay Burley and Lorraine Kelly, the latter of which has presented at this time of day ever since, with the occasional interjection on school holidays by the puppet Roland Rat, and later Timmy Mallett with “Wacaday”.
“Good Morning Britain” had begun as a diet of hard news and heavyweight interviews, presented by big-name presenters like David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford and Robert Kee, but viewers deserted once the novelty of breakfast television wore off. TV-am had misjudged the BBC which, having been expected to present a similar news-based show, instead went with a lighter, folksier mix of news and current affairs presented by former “Grandstand” presenter Frank Bough, alongside the newsreader Selina Scott. On the week it began, “Breakfast Time” editor Ron Neil told the “Radio Times” it had learned from the US TV networks to relax the viewer into the day: “If we pummel people with facts and analysis at that time of the morning, they just won’t want to know.” Similar emphasis was placed on conversation, even when talking to news reporters, while relying less on visual displays of information to prevent rooting the audience to their chairs.
The response at TV-am was panic, as audiences for “Good Morning Britain” sank to only 100,000 within its first few weeks. Once presenters and management were fired or, in the case of David Frost, shunted to Sundays to carry on the political interviews, the response was to copy the BBC’s formula, bringing in similar exercise and cookery spots, TV reviews, an “on this day” feature, an agony aunt slot, and even reading out the bingo numbers from that day’s newspapers… and bring in Roland Rat. With TV-am engaged in a battle of survival both to meet viewers’ expectations and attract advertisers, they rose to become the more natural place for bright and breezy morning TV than the BBC, which eventually relaunched “Breakfast Time” in 1986 as the hard news programme, presented from a desk, that TV-am had originally expected from them. By the 1990s, “Good Morning Britain” had an audience of 2.7 million people, seventy per cent of the available audience, and nearly three times that of the BBC’s renamed “Breakfast News.”
“Good Morning Britain” only stopped broadcasting in 1992 because TV-am lost their licence to broadcast, but replacements GMTV (1993-2010), “Daybreak” (2010-14) and the neo-“Good Morning Britain” from 2014 all had problems when they initially began, from sets being too dark for 6am, to their features not being distinctive enough, or having too many presenters on screen at once. In all cases, some element of the TV-am formula returned, from the sofa and coffee table, to simply having brighter colours on the set – the first “Good Morning Britain” began with an brick-walled set emulating a chich apartment, which over time was painted salmon pink and filled with more and more potted plants. The only continuity between these shows for ITV has been the engaging and professional tone of its presenters like Kate Garraway, Richard Arnold, Ben Shephard, Dr Hilary Jones and Lorraine Kelly.
The current “Good Morning Britain” is a different beast, particularly in the combative and controversial arguments and subject matters discussed when Piers Morgan appeared as a presented from October 2015 to March 2021, when he talked himself off the show due to his comments regarding Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. As polarising and infuriating as the programme became under Morgan – long, combative interviews, pushing out fixed and reliable times for news bulletins, weather and anything else – it succeeded in prolonging the audience for the show beyond its finish time, recycling clips from the programme through the day through online news sites and social media, much like news items from the BBC’s “Breakfast” being replayed through the day on the BBC News Channel. The content that comes out of the current “Good Morning Britain” is more important than the time it was originally broadcast, an option not available to TV-am.
However, the pattern established by the original “Good Morning Britain” continues, except it appears to have been reclaimed by the BBC. “Breakfast” continues primarily as a news programme, but it fits the image I began with, down to the sofa and coffee table, and especially in the calmer, more relaxed atmosphere. The red livery of BBC News is replaced with a more morning-friendly orange, just as the previous “Breakfast News” used to substitute blue for pink.
Breakfast television took until 1983 to begin in the UK because it took a long time to establish that an audience would be there to watch it – as programmes for schools took up the later mornings on BBC One and ITV, regular television didn’t often start until lunchtime. Even now, breakfast television in the UK is still a minority pursuit, attracting only between five and six million viewers across all channels at 8.00am, while eighteen million are listening to the radio at that time – Zoë Ball’s BBC Radio 2 breakfast show has a greater audience than for all of television.