Every day, more than 2.4 million Australians watch at least five minutes of Today, Sunrise or ABC News Breakfast, anchored by Lisa Millar and Michael Rowland. Yet the metropolitan audience figures most media outlets report are tiny: 276,000 last year for Sunrise (up from 266,000 in 2018); 196,000 for Today (down from 236,000) and News Breakfast, stable on 154,000. Because of the way ratings are calculated (total number of minutes watched divided by the length of a show), programs viewed in short increments yield small averages.
“The averages do not truly reflect the massive size of the audience,” says TV Tonight editor David Knox. “[Breakfast television’s] ability to speak to middle Australia, particularly when combined with social media, is very influential, and it’s why advertisers seek a slice of the action.”
Conventional wisdom holds that people watching a certain channel in the morning are more likely to watch that channel at night – but as Knox points out, Today‘s poor ratings in 2019 didn’t stop Nine ending Seven’s 12-year dominance of prime time. Nevertheless, media coverage of this victory was overshadowed by near-daily updates of Today‘s woes.
This is no surprise to Knox, who believes live, personality-driven news programs attract disproportionate scrutiny. “These shows are monitored constantly by media for [potential clickbait stories] … which makes life treacherous for the presenters,” he says.
Nine’s morning TV chief, Steven Burling, admits last year was “disappointing” for Today. He says Stefanovic’s return was prompted by the realisation he is “close to unique” among local TV presenters.
“He’s entertaining, he’s empathetic, he’s fun,” Burling says. “A lot of people would like to have a beer with him. I don’t want to sound frivolous at all – we’re a news program at our heart. But we should be able to switch gears at a moment’s notice.”
Convincing viewers to return will take time. “If we can build 10 per cent in 2020, I’d be happy with that,” says Burling.
Fusion Strategy media analyst Steve Allen agrees. “If [Today] can take 20,000 viewers from Sunrise over the next year, that would be a stunning result,” he says. “Breakfast shows might not determine which network viewers watch at night, but winning breakfast comes with bragging rights and adds to a network’s armoury.”
No one expects Today to topple Sunrise – Australia’s top-rating early morning show since 2004 – any time soon. “Breakfast TV is a very intimate genre,” says Sunrise‘s executive producer Michael Pell. “Building that rapport with the audience is crucial … and like all relationships, that takes time.”
As more people get their news and entertainment online, live TV ratings continue to fall, a trend exacerbated by younger viewers’ embrace of new technologies. More than 80 per cent of Australia’s breakfast TV audience is aged 40 or older, but Pell says social media has expanded Sunrise‘s reach.
“You only need to look at the daily breaking news across this summer [including bushfires] and the resources we have dedicated to live rolling coverage to know why it’s relevant and where our priorities lie,” he says. “Breakfast television is not being challenged – in fact, it is now seen on more platforms by more people and it’s as important as ever.”
Sunrise and Today will resume regular programming on Seven and Nine respectively from 5.30am on Monday, January 6.
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Broede Carmody is a culture reporter at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald