Australian breakfast TV – and the fight for eyeballs

Fresh faces: the original Wake Up lineup launched with three, whittled to two and then, last week, was axed. AAP

The axe swung at Network Ten and removed the head of its breakfast program Wake Up - just over six months since it launched.

And why?

Nobody was watching.

The 6am to 9am timeslot has been a hotly contested battleground for channels Seven and Nine in recent years. Network Ten decided it wanted a slice of that pie and last year started its tilt at the nation’s early-rising TV watchers.

It had all the hallmarks of success – money was being poured in and Adam Boland, the man who steered Seven’s Sunrise to ratings glory, was at the helm.

How could it fail?

An awful lot of money was spent on the set at Sydney’s Manly Beach. Three recognisable, but not necessarily well-known faces - Natarsha Belling, James Mathison and Natasha Exelby - were Wake Up’s hosts. There was a nationwide, get-to-know-us tour. But moments after its launch cracks started to appear. Creator Adam Boland’s battle with his mental health saw him sidelined and within weeks, Exelby was dropped and the the three-headed presenting team became two.

But why would anyone try to beat two well-established shows like Today and Sunrise? The simple answer is money. Not as much money that you see coursing through the veins of primetime television..but there is money there. Grown-ups getting ready for work, parents prepping kids for school - people who spend money, and if they’re watching, TV stations can sell advertising. Cartoons and kid-oriented shows are okay and they’re cheap, but they’re not typically watched by consumers with spending power.

The audience was there, albeit not large, but it was there. Our attentions have turned to the online and mobile world - last year PricewaterhouseCoopers found that, for the first time, more money was spent on internet advertising than on free-to-air TV ads.

But there are still people who watch free to air television. Traditional media companies, like the television networks, are holding on to the old business models for all they’re worth – squeezing out every last drop. So, logically, with the right kind of show, maybe some of the pot of gold could be funnelled Ten’s way.

As Hunter S. Thompson once wrote: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”

Try as they did Wake Up didn’t resonate with the breakfast audience. A lot of money was spent on the set and the program itself, but the lack of hosting chemistry cut deep. Look at the material offered by Today, Sunrise and Wake Up - and it never varied that greatly. But Karl Stefanovic’s naughty boy antics on Today and the clear chemistry between Sunrise’s David Koch and Samantha Armytage are hard to beat. Add to that no track record for breakfast TV and why would you watch Ten’s Wake Up?

The result of no-one watching your show, equates to advertisers not wanting to spend money with you. No money in the money trench..no show. It doesn’t badly damage the whole station’s ability to attract advertisers, but it doesn’t help. Wake Up was a calculated risk that just didn’t pan out. And these days, in television, the life of a risk is usually measured in weeks, not Wake Up’s months.

Wake Up’s demise has passed with a sense of sadness among its employees both past and present. Social media has been awash with words of support and empathy for those who are losing their jobs. The show’s creator Adam Boland tweeted: “I feel very sad for all my friends at Ten. Very good people, let down by many things, including my early exit. Thinking of them all today.” Messages asking him not to take the blame followed.

But this week’s passing of Wake Up was part of a much bigger plan at Network Ten to try to stop the company’s profit losses. Along with breakfast television went three of the station’s news bulletins and 150 jobs.

For those who work in news at Network Ten, it’s been a rocky road. Only 18 months ago, 100 of them lost their jobs. But back in 2010 it was a very different story. It was decided then that news would be expanded – it was time for wall-to-wall news.

There would be a bulletin from 5 until 6pm. Then The Project, with its unique take on reporting the news would kick in. 60 Minutes veteran George Negus would anchor the 6pm national news. According to Network Ten’s press release, Negus said it would dig “more deeply into the critical national and international stories and issues….the destination for viewers seeking a smarter, more informed and inquisitive approach. And he promised: "It could well change the landscape of free-to-air, prime time, national and international news and current affairs in this country – for the better.” It was boom time.

News is not cheap - salaries, expensive equipment, helicopters and satellites cost a lot of money. But a strong news reputation can help bolster a station’s audience. Capture the right number of eyeballs with your evening news bulletin and then you work to keep them watching through primetime when your ads are pulling money into the trench. That was the theory.

I’m told the company commissioned internal audience research. It found the bold plan would not work and Ten would get a kicking from its audience. That was ignored. They went on feelings rather than solid evidence.

As one insider told me at the time: “we’ll enjoy it while it lasts”.

By June 2011, the unravelling began. Dozens of new employees were sent packing. The news experiment took a bullet in the brain.

Whether Wake Up was a case of research, gut feeling, or simple hope, insiders aren’t saying. But the equation of potential success was there. It’s just that the audience didn’t see it that way.

There are reports there’ll be a replacement program for Wake Up. For now though, judging by its new breakfast TV line-up of program repeats and a Jamie Oliver series, it seems Ten has rolled over and given up.

The free-to-air television business is a tough one. There’s not as much money around as there was in TV’s heyday – the time before that internet thing took off. But stations took risks then and they take risks now. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. It’s just these days a lack of financial padding makes for a heavy landing.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.