Off-brand and unoriginal: Why Breakfast failed to satisfy

Million dollar man ... Paul Henry's departure will help ease Ten's balance sheet.
Million dollar man ... Paul Henry's departure will help ease Ten's balance sheet.

Ten's embattled Breakfast program survived a disastrous rush to launch, low ratings, the loss of one of its three presenters and a change of programmer, but in the end it couldn't survive its own blood-spattered balance sheet as Ten's management moved to staunch the bleeding by axing a costly live TV show which was giving very little back.

After 10 months of humiliatingly low ratings, Ten has confirmed Breakfast will finish at the end of the month, capping off a ratings year in which it failed to make any impact whatsoever.

Few people will react with surprise, except perhaps to wonder how it has taken Ten's management almost a year to work out what the audience, and the media, had worked out very quickly: Breakfast was a dud.

Ten launched the show in February with much fanfare. Ten trumpeted a fresh take on the genre, pitting its show against Sunrise and Today, both of which feature the time-honoured, arguably tired, format of two hosts perched on a couch.

When they lost co-presenter Dr Andrew Rochford several months later, Ten was left with two hosts – New Zealand broadcaster Paul Henry and Ten news journalist Kathryn Robinson – perched on a couch.

It was confirmation of what we already knew: Ten Breakfast had failed to deliver on its promise of reinventing the genre. Moreover, it was worryingly off-brand for Ten, a network which has always prided itself on being inventive, original and never faltering in its clear focus on its younger audience.

In contrast, Breakfast was predictable, derivative and – with a cranky, 52-year-old front and centre – seemingly pitched at an older, conservative audience which was never, and is still not, part of Tens's heartland.

There is no question Ten has taken a hiding on Breakfast. Its ratings were abysmal from the outset: with Sunrise and Today commanding between 350,000 and 400,000 viewers apiece, it as clung to between 20,000 and 40,000 viewers – around a tenth of its rivals.

It also had to endure the humiliation of falling behind the ABC's breakfast offering, which is simulcast on both ABC1 and the ABC's rolling news channel, ABC News 24. The ABC's combined audience frequently outpaced Ten's, perhaps only by a whisker, but in television there is very little material difference between a whisker and a gulf.

To some extent, the fullest potential of Ten's Breakfast was ruined by poor timing. At different times Ten has aggressively pursued Seven's Adam Boland, in the hope that his expertise could help Ten carve a profitable space in the breakfast genre.

While Boland's former masterpiece, the Today-bruising Sunrise, is now showing a few signs of old age in an industry which abhors wrinkles, it stands to reason he – or another executive with the right balance of skills – could have given Ten a stronger, clearer strategy for Breakfast, and one which might have played more effectively to their demographic strength - that is, under 40-year-old viewers.

Interestingly, Ten has signalled its intention to return to the breakfast genre. Cancelling Breakfast is, for Ten, not an admission of lack of interest in the genre, but more of an admission that the format they had, in its present form, was simply unworkable, and unable to shed the baggage it was carrying from being a ratings failure.

In the short term, Ten's balance sheet will sigh with relief. Paul Henry, who boasted of his million dollar-plus salary when he was hired, was an expensive acquisition for Ten and holding onto him, at a time when Ten is shedding some of the best journalistic talent on TV, notably the Melbourne newsreader Helen Kapalos, beggars belief.

But in the longer term, Ten needs to manage its message better. At present, it is commanding headlines for cutting, slashing and burning. Audiences, historically, are not moved by financial ruthlessness. They prefer the taste of innovation, invention and originality. Until Ten can deliver those to its audience, it will find the path to recovery impossible.

Ten Breakfast finishes production on November 30.

This story Off-brand and unoriginal: Why Breakfast failed to satisfy first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.