RTS Legends – the battle for breakfast: event report

RTS Legends – the battle for breakfast: event report

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Tuesday, 16th July 2013

Former BBC presenter Nick Ross called the winners and the losers at the RTS Legends Lunch on "The Battle for Breakfast" that took place more than 30 years ago.

“The BBC won the battle for breakfast - but lost the war,” concluded Ross in a reference to the fact that BBC Breakfast first took an apparently unassailable lead in the ratings before seeing its commercial rivals emerge victorious over the longer term with the help of Roland Rat.

The BBC had the advantage of launching two weeks before TV-am but the key to its initial success was Ron Neil’s understanding that breakfast television had to be different, more relaxed than conventional news and current affairs. It had to be a magazine-style programme, along Nationwide lines.

And so BBC Breakfast went into the battle with cooking, astrology and keep-fit, alongside the news and Frank Bough’s woolly cardigans.

Ross told how after interviewing the Chancellor on tax matters he received an instruction from Ron in his earpiece.

“Go and take him over to the cooking,” said Ross and leading politicians were then often asked about their interests in cooking and food after the main interview was over.

In an inversion of traditional roles, against the populist BBC programme, the commercial TV-am went on air with chairman Peter Jay’s “mission to explain” and an earnest seriousness of purpose.

Sir David Frost told how Anna Ford found herself having to handle an item on female circumcision at 8:15 am. 

“That’s not breakfast fodder,” noted Sir David.

Colin Stanbridge, at the time a producer on BBC Breakfast, said: “When we saw the female circumcision we knew they had lost it.”

Sir David, the leading member of the Famous Five, said the commercial broadcaster compounded its other mistakes by demonstrating panic in public  – by getting rid of the chairman Peter Jay and sacking Anna Ford and Angela Rippon.

Clive Jones, managing editor of TV-am, argued that the problems the station faced included hiring the wrong sort of people for a difficult TV start-up.

“We had a lot of very bright young things. We didn’t have enough experienced TV pros,” said Jones.

The result was that by May the BBC had 90% of the breakfast TV audience.

And then TV-am got into its stride with the help of the Roland Rat glove puppet, cartoons, live outside broadcasts from the seaside - all part of the more populist approach of Greg Dyke.

Stanbridge said the Breakfast editors and producers saw the rise of TV-am and knew exactly what to do to counter it – fight cartoons with cartoons.

“We were forbidden to have cartoons. That was when it all went wrong,” he says. 

Even having an astrologer was hugely controversial with then BBC director general Alasdair Milne.

“We were so successful. That was the real problem,” said Stanbridge, who had to watch as TV-am became the most successful breakfast television station in the world in terms of ratings.

Report by Raymond Snoddy

Pictures by Paul Hampartsoumian


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