It’s become a national sport to roast Karl Stefanovic, the freshly punted co-host of the Nine Network’s breakfast show, Today.
Sure, the heady days when Karl wore the same cheap blue suit for an entire year to protest the unequal treatment of his co-host Lisa Wilkinson seem a lot longer ago than 2014, but breakfast TV has had more challenges than marriage and co-host splits, no matter how much tabloid fodder those antics have created.
The ratings for both Nine’s Today and Seven’s Sunrise have slid progressively downhill since the shows were among the networks’ prized cash cows (that udderly awful double entendré is right on brand for brekkie TV).
Evening news shows routinely dominate the top 10, pulling around 800,000 metro viewers even in the lead-up to Christmas.
Ten’s The Project trounces the morning shows, too, banking more than 400,000 coveted metros some nights this week, when the brekkie shows weren’t even in the top 20.
While Sunrise has generally been in front this year, ratings for it and Today are far from bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, with each averaging between 150,000 and 300,000 metropolitan viewers across the 5.30-9am slot.
Has the whole format – a pair of his and hers hosts, smiley newsreader, ubiquitous entertainment reporter, kooky weather person, a lazy susan of shouty commentators and shrieking dial-the-winner competitions – aged out?
“I think it’s time for a complete program overhaul as both Sunrise and Today audiences are tracking downwards,” says Virginia Hyland, owner and founder of the Hyland Agency. “The format is tiring.”
Peter Horgan, CEO of Omnicom Media Group Australia and New Zealand, agrees that the networks face a challenge, but doesn’t think the model is broken.
“It’s a magazine format that’s right for its time of day; it fits into people’s lives as people go through the various shifts of the morning, and it’s a much warmer format than pureplay news,” says Horgan. “Audiences are fragmenting and technology is disrupting everything.”
Horgan points out that the ratings slide is in line with the “broader audience slip on free-to-air TV … that’s just a fact of increased competition from other entertainment and information sources”.
“We’ll never again see the golden days of the oligopoly of screen ownership when it was the only show in town,” he said.
Key to success: chemistry
Horgan acknowledges that Today suffered from the “slow-motion unravelling” from Wilkinson leaving and Stefanovic’s gossip-prone personal life.
“The loyalists don’t like change,” he says, adding that Today can take heart that despite the “talent disruption”, many have left the franchise rather than defecting to Sunrise.
“Viewers pick one set of personalities and a look and feel, and they don’t really toggle between the two. So it’s possible to win them back.”
And there are still ad dollars out there to fund it: about $120 million in advertising revenue is hoovered up by breakfast TV, with Today said to account for up to $50 million.
Nine’s news and current affairs director Darren Wick has promised a new format as well as new line-up, and Horgan reckons the latter is the Holy Grail.
There’s no tried and true formula: you either get lucky with the chemistry [of the hosts] or you don’t. The hosts gel with viewers or don’t, and that’s why the talent is so well-paid.”
On Friday afternoon, Nine announced that Triple J breakfast news presenter Brooke Boney will join Today as the new entertainment reporter. Seemingly immovable incumbent Richard Wilkins will slide sideways in the after 9am slot on Today Extra.
That single announcement was a breath of hope for Today. Boney, a Gamilaroi Gomeroi woman who studied journalism at UTS, is young, smart and connected to a demographic that the male, pale and stale-dominated show could never attract.
Still, for many, the problem breakfast TV faces is more basic than diversity: who has the time to watch telly during the morning chaos?
Even for those who want news updates, there’s yet another disruptor in the voice-activated digital assistant – thousands of Amazon Echo and Google Homes are predicted to fill Christmas stockings this year.
A quick “Hey Alexa” or “OK Google” while making school lunches can call up the latest news and weather or a favourite podcast or audiobook.
No hands, no eyeballs.
Still, technology saves those who want to be saved: could Amazon Show and Google Home Hub, the new smart-screen iterations of these assistants, possibly get viewers back?
If young, appealing hosts engage a new audience, maybe there’ll be a breakfast TV renaissance streaming live on the kitchen benches of millennials. “OK, Google, play Brooke Boney!”