Well, it's been quite a couple of weeks," Susanna Reid told a packed crowd at the Grosvenor House hotels in London last month, as she picked up the newsreader of the year award. They should have given her a second gong there and then for understatement of the year. Fresh from finishing as runner-up on last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, Reid split from long-term partner Dominic Cotton in February and signed up to present Good Morning Britain – ITV’s replacement for troubled breakfast show Daybreak – in early March. Her contract is worth a reputed £1 million (ITV say her fee is nowhere near that high) – so the million pound (or lower) question unspoken in the room was: can she (or anyone else) save breakfast TV?
She will have her work cut out. And not simply because, as she points out, she’s now a single mum with three boys since her relationship broke down – reportedly over her heavy commute to Salford, where the BBC’s Breakfast is produced. “I get to do the school run when a lot of working mums don’t get home until bedtime,” she says. “At the age of 43, I have got three children and I have been a journalist for more than 20 years, so I hope I know a few things about quite a lot of stuff. Of course, I will bring this side of me to the programme; as a journalist, you bring all of your experience.”
Since Daybreak took over from GMTV in 2010, it’s gobbled up presenters faster than kids chomp cereal, starting with Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley, who left after 15 months, then tearing through Kate Garraway, Dan Lobb, Matt Barbet, Aled Jones and even Lorraine Kelly. All have been warming the sofa but losing the viewers, as ratings fell to 600,000 against Breakfast's 1.6 million. Reid's 18 months at Breakfast alongside Bill Turnbull added 300,000 of those viewers. Can she bring them with her to ITV?
"Susanna Reid is an excellent presenter. She's very newsy, probably more so than ITV breakfast has been used to for a few years, but I think the morning audience want that,” says Steve Hewlett, presenter of Radio 4’s The Media Show and, while programme director at Carlton Television, former boss of The Big Breakfast. “She’s walking into a mess of corporate hubris. ITV bought GMTV back in 2010 – didn’t need to change it, but did anyway. Now it’s trying to repair the damage it caused and kicking itself for letting the BBC win the ratings battle when the Corporation’s move to Salford should have made it very vulnerable.”
Breakfast TV is notoriously tricky, explains Fiona Phillips, who notched up 12 years on GMTV’s sofa before leaving in 2008 for family reasons. “Viewers are moving around, shouting at children, getting dressed... You’re very much part of their routine; they have you as their breakfast habit. People want to put you on and get on with their morning – unlike Coronation Street in the evening. And because you’re part of people’s routine they get cross if you ruin it. People still come up to me in the street – just recently in Amsterdam someone stopped me to say, ‘What have they done with GMTV?’”
And although Reid’s reported £1 million pay cheque sounds like an impressive career move, some warn it might prove her undoing.
“I joined TV-am [GMTV’s predecessor] after a raft of big names had failed – David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon... they’d not caught on with the viewers at all,” says Nick Owen, who helped turn around TV-am’s fortunes in the early 1980s. “They’d been turned down by Terry Wogan and Michael Aspel, so I was filling in until they could find someone, basically. But because no one was watching, we could try things out. They hired Anne Diamond at my suggestion and we had a boy-and-girl-next-door thing. I think all these announcements about high salaries alienate viewers. Here’s someone on a million pounds - you will enjoy them! Who can relate to a presenter like that?”
Fiona Phillips agrees. “Eamonn Holmes and I – you can’t manufacture that sort of chemistry,” she says. “We’d both come from the same backgrounds as the viewers – our parents had worked hard, we had worked hard up through the ranks to get there. We weren’t out at premieres living the glamorous life. People don’t want to see that in the morning – they can’t relate.
“We’d talk about our lives, what we were doing after the show, a row with our partner... things that people can identify with. That’s all the more important on commercial television these days; you have to keep people coming back after the break, and the breaks are longer than ever. You have to stop people tuning out during the competitions. And, ideally, you give them the story that’s so good they’re either late for work or they’ve got something to talk about as soon as they get in.”
If you put the chemistry question to Reid, however, she says she’s confident that it’s just waiting to happen. “I am looking forward to working with Ben, Charlotte and Sean,” she says of co-presenters Ben Shephard, Charlotte Hawkins and Sean Fletcher. “There is a positive feeling about this. I am not joining a ship that has already set sail. We are all doing this together. They are lovely people. We all want to have fun together and bring a sparkle to the mornings.”
Chemistry tests are a Hollywood staple – producers shoot scenes between prospective co-stars to see if they fizz on screen. Over on Breakfast, bosses are taking their time to find Reid’s replacement, although her current stand-in, Louise Minchin, has been tipped for a full-time role after she clicked with Bill Turnbull. Countdown presenter Rachel Riley and Channel 5’s Emma Crosby are also in the frame.
Some suggest this is shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic, and warn that the breakfast audience is falling victim to new technology. “People have two or three screens at the breakfast table these days – iPads, Facebook or checking BBC News on their phones,” says Magnus Fitchett, planning director at Coca Cola and Unilever ad agency SapientNitro. “They’re not looking to switch the TV off, but they’re not paying as much attention to it. For ITV, that’s not good. Recent neuroscience research shows that people are more attentive to advertising in the morning when they’re rested, and before they see the 300 ads we all view every day. So ITV could earn good money if it gets breakfast right.”
Over on Radio 4, however, the Today programme has been piling on listeners to a record-breaking 7.1 million, proving that the breakfast audience is still strong if the programme is right. “There’s no point in TV trying to copy Today,” warns presenter Justin Webb. “When I was on Breakfast we tried to do that and we failed. Politicians just won’t come on. I approached Douglas Hurd at a conference and he said, ‘Television? In the morning?’ and walked off. You have to find your own USP – I think people want intelligence, a bit of cheek and something enjoyable, but not entirely vacuous. If you haven’t got the right content, you’re in trouble.”
Greg Dyke, who unleashed Roland Rat on the world when he was head of programmes at TV-am, agrees. “Television is all about content,” he says. “Average presenters can be fine if the content is good. Very good presenters die if the content is rubbish.”
“The problem with ITV breakfast is that you’ve got the same people behind the camera now as you’ve had for years,” says Jon Thoday, managing director of management company Avalon, which has Adrian Chiles on its books. “You can’t change a show by changing the presenters if the team making the show doesn’t change – they’ll be producing the same show, just with different faces. In all other areas of TV, if you’re making a new show you get the best people available and you make a pilot to try things out. You can change the bits that don’t work and no one sees the stuff that doesn’t.
“With breakfast, it’s the opposite – you’ve got the majority of the production team who have been getting up at 3am for the past ten years, you announce the new presenter with a fanfare so the press is watching, then you put them on and try things out in the full gaze of the press and public.
“It’s like trying to steer a supertanker – if a bit isn’t working, you have to check why it’s not working, maybe get a new director, make adjustments... and all of that is on screen. However talented the new presenters are, their success is dependent on someone solving these problems.”
Reid remains unmoved, saying she took the job with ITV so she could build something completely new. “I don’t dread anything,” she insists. “Even the early morning alarm clock. When you have done Strictly Come Dancing live on a Saturday night in front of millions... I’ll never be that nervous again.”
Good Morning Britain starts on Monday at 6:00am on ITV.