Sunday morning political TV shows are booming. Raymond Snoddy reports
With the arrival last May of Peston on Sunday on ITV to add to The Andrew Marr Show and Andrew Neil’s The Sunday Politics on the BBC, the Sunday morning TV political audience seemed to be very well catered for.
Yet, Sky’s head of news, John Ryley, thought there might be room for another competitor and a different approach. With this in mind, he talked it over with his young political correspondent, Sophy Ridge.
“I thought there was an opportunity to take a different line with a much younger individual – she is 32. She thinks that political discourse is too pugnacious and that there should be more rational debate at a critical time in the UK’s history,” says Ryley.
The new programme would also try to get out around the country with filmed reports to talk to the electorate and avoid the “claustrophobia” of College Green in Westminster.
When she took her place in the schedule with the three established male broadcasting heavyweights in January, Ridge bagged an interview with Prime Minister Theresa May for her launch programme.
Ridge was generally seen to be polite but firm and certainly no pushover. She challenged the Prime Minister repeatedly on whether she was preparing to sacrifice access to the single market to have greater control of migration.
Though May prevaricated, this was a further indication that a form of hard Brexit was on the way.
Over the years, Sunday morning political programmes have come and gone. Before Ridge, on Sky there was Adam Boulton and Dermot Murnaghan.
ITV’s dalliance with Sunday politics goes all the way back to Peter Jay and Brian Walden’s Weekend World and on through Jonathan Dimbleby.
There was a hiatus before the arrival of Peston, when ITV’s missing political slot was occupied by second showings of The X Factor.
For ITV, the return to the Sunday morning fray sprang from a desire to create a new political vehicle as part of the bait to lure Robert Peston away from the BBC to become the network’s political editor.
The decision also played to ITV’s ambition to add programmes attractive to more upmarket viewers.
[The Sunday programmes] feed off each other and it becomes quite a coherent piece of public service broadcasting
At the BBC, David Frost begat Andrew Marr. Andrew Neil, by common consent the most hard-nosed of the Sunday political interviewers, has been running his Sunday Politics, with regional breakouts, for the past five years.
Richard Tait, media academic and former editor-in-chief of ITN, likes what he now sees on a Sunday morning. He believes that, historically, it is “a good period” for the genre.
The presenters are accomplished broadcasters who have a bit of humanity but are not in the least frightened by the people they are interviewing.
“They [the Sunday programmes] clearly take politics seriously. They feed off each other and it becomes quite a coherent piece of public service broadcasting and there is room for everybody,” Tait argues.
The choice, the competition and the different approaches have combined with the magnitude of running stories such as Brexit and Trump to produce record viewing figures.
Marr is up year-on-year by 200,000 viewers to an average of nearly 1.7 million, the highest for five years, although the post-referendum show attracted 2.7 million, its largest ever audience.
The Sunday Politics averages 900,000 – 1.8 million on 26 June – but, of the political four, Neil gets the highest audience-appreciation figures.
Peston wins an average of 850,000 viewers; the bigger slice comes from the re-broadcast following the late-evening ITV news.
Ridge has around 200,000, although there is a boost from a repeat of the highlights; the May interview was watched by 356,000. Sky says Ridge has reached a total of 1.4 million since launch and almost certainly wins the social-media battle, with 750,000 video views on Facebook.
It all adds up to a total broadcast audience, including repeats, of what must be a historic high of more than 3.6 million.
But could there be one unexpected downside – that the more discursive Sunday shows may suit the interests of the politicians a little too well? Is it leading, particularly in the case of the controlling style of the May Government, to fewer TV appearances by ministers during the week?
“There is something about the rise of the Sunday programmes and the lack of willingness to put forward Government people in the week that is connected,” suggests one senior news and current affairs executive who asked not to be named.
The source, who is involved in the highly competitive battle of attracting top political players into the studio, believes that fewer ministers are appearing on the Today programme than with previous governments.
Is it, perhaps, easier for this Government to get its messages out on a Sunday than face a weekday grilling on Newsnight?
The executive concedes, however, that “it may also be partly about everything being dominated by Brexit and they don’t want to be asked about Brexit all the time”.
Former Today editor Phil Harding believes that there is something to the theory. He believes that more pundits than ministers are appearing on the Radio 4 flagship programme, which is attracting record audiences of more than 7.5 million.
Harding accepts that the Sunday TV shows have always been a good way to set the political agenda for the coming week.
Sunday news bulletins and Monday’s newspapers are always grateful for the resulting stories.
“To be fair to the politicians, the Sunday programmes do give them longer to make their point,” adds Harding. “But it does mean that they don’t have to go 12 rounds with John Humphrys or 10 rounds with Evan Davis.”
Steve Anderson, ITV’s former head of news, who also used to work on Newsnight, is not so sure anything very new is going on. “When I was on Newsnight, people began to suspect that the politicians liked to get the Sunday business out of the way very early and be away from west London in the morning, heading off to the Home Counties,” says Anderson.
Anderson now works for independent Shearwater Media and makes programmes for Discovery and the BBC.
He believes that this is a very good time for television and politics to complement each other on Sunday mornings, even though people don’t really want highly competitive, hand-to-hand combat at such a time.
If there is, indeed, a problem, then programmes such as Today and Newsnight will have to adapt again – as they have done in the past.
Tait, a former Newsnight editor, believes that it is important not to have a rose-tinted view of the programme, remembering only the great set-piece Jeremy Paxman interviews.
He believes Newsnight’s problem is that it tends to dip in and out of big British political stories in favour of a broader mix, including international stories: “I think that, post-Paxman, there isn’t the expectation that they are going to hit those stories consistently.
In the end, if you don’t, you will find it harder to persuade people to come on.” He believes that Today is still attracting good interviewees.
For David Mannion, former editor-in-chief of ITN, there is no obvious problem. The Sunday programmes are all in good hands. He welcomes the lively competition. For him, it is a case of the more the merrier.
“Look,” says Mannion, “there are times that I want to throw a brick at the TV and shout, why don’t you ask this, that or the other – but, overall, we are well served by some very good questioning and good journalists doing the questioning” – whatever the day of the week.