The ABC’s News Breakfast program is the quiet achiever of breakfast TV. And even without the benefit of a large commercial TV marketing budget or Sunrise’s “cash cow” giving away fistfuls of dollars, the program is, unlike its competitors, increasing its audience.
“We do provide the intelligent alternative and for whatever reason people who might have been rusted-on viewers to the other breakfast shows on the commercial stations are coming across us,” co-host Michael Rowland says. “They’re sick of what they’ve been watching for years. We offer the light stuff – we do light and shade – but we are called news breakfast for a reason.
“Our mission as ABC news journalists is to provide our viewers with news updates and treat them as intelligent beings.”
In March, The Age assessed breakfast television numbers, reporting that as commercial breakfast shows shed viewers, News Breakfast is holding up well, and that since 2016 its ratings had grown almost three per cent, and the two years before they jumped 48 per cent.
Media watchers are putting it down to a mix of intelligent reporting, the talent and appeal of the hosts and credibility. “There is still a yearning for trustworthy news,” says Steve Allen, of Fusion Strategy. “While the public enjoys the alternative, it’s not quite the same. For the majority of the time theirs is entertainment with news mixed in.”
Allen says hosts Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland have the right mix of smarts and warmth. “Michael is a very good communicator, warm and friendly, and with Virginia you’ve got to be on your toes. They’re well rounded.”
Veteran media commentator Harold Mitchell believes it’s all about trust. “You earn the trust you deserve,” he says. “People want it to be reliable. News Breakfast is news at its base but it’s not treated in a frivolous manner. The opposing shows might better be described as entertainment. Nothing wrong with that. But this is what it says; a news-breakfast program.”
News Breakfast has some serious talent at its disposal, including the program’s original co-host in 2008. “Barrie Cassidy is in my view one of this country’s pre-eminent political commentators,” Rowland says. “He calls it as it is. There’s a huge switch-on factor when Barrie’s on at 7.30 every Friday.” Trioli notes the program has access to “some of the best foreign correspondents that Australian journalism has to offer, and they’re with us on a daily basis,” she says.
“They’re always bringing their top-flight analysis, that’s absolute gold. These reporters are at the absolute top of their game and they’re there every morning for you.” The show’s credibility means many agenda setters choose News Breakfast to appear on. “Some of the names they get: lots of politicians; it’s serious stuff,” says Allen.
“If you want to have a more rounded feel for the story you have to be into this program,” he says.
The timing means Australian viewers get what Rowland calls “first dibs on the 50,000 tweets that Donald Trump has issued that day” through Zoe Daniel, Conor Duffy or Stephanie March as well as its correspondents in Europe.
Trioli and Rowland have worked together for eight of the show’s 10 years.
“I really enjoy working with Virginia,” he says. “I think she is the ABC’s best interviewer in news and current affairs. Whip smart, fantastic ability to laugh at herself and everything else that goes on on this wonderful show.”
“It’s an extraordinary relationship,” Trioli says. “When you’re sort of flung together you can’t possibly imagine or anticipate that it’s going to work. Part of you is thinking ‘Christ Almighty, in a sense we probably spend more hours together closely than we would with our partners, and at a vulnerable hour of the morning. But it’s worked so well right from the very beginning’.
“I’ve said this on air: Michael has probably the best news sense of anyone I’ve ever worked with. His news judgement is unerring and impeccable but, at the same time, he has a great sense of fun. There’s extraordinary trust; that’s the only way it will work. Someone’s leaning, someone’s falling … it’s trusting and it’s affectionate and it’s the joy of this show.”
Their personalities are on display more now, which, Rowland says, is “essential for breakfast TV because people feel as though they know us”.
“Anybody can read an auto cue but it takes a certain person to have the intelligence to ask serious questions but also to show their human side.”
Trioli says there was a day when the show changed. “It was when our floor director Joe jumped behind the couch and the camera cut back to us too quickly and Joe was fixing our mikes,” she says. “At that moment we both lost it. We are human beings; we are real; yes we present the news and do it damn well but there’s more to us, more going on in our hearts and our minds and we don’t mind you seeing it.
“Our informal motto has always been ‘We send you away smarter’,” Trioli says. “We’re unapologetic about knowing that even though we’re in the breakfast slot and it’s morning television, there was no point in you coming to us unless we were there to properly inform you.
“What’s probably developed and changed over the years is we’ve come out more as individuals, showing more of ourselves, and what’s come with that is more of a conversational, engaging, more magazine approach, when needed.”
In light of the recent budget freeze for the ABC announced in the Federal Budget, Harold Mitchell stresses the program’s importance for the broadcaster. “News Breakfast is a very important stake in the ground for the believability of the ABC,” he says. “At any point when there might be budget cuts from time to time, News Breakfast should be protected. It is a cornerstone of the ABC.”
Michael on Virginia: “Whip smart, fantastic ability to laugh at herself and everything else that goes on on this wonderful show.”
Virginia on Michael: “His news judgement is unerring and impeccable but, at the same time, he has a great sense of fun.”
- ABC News Breakfast, weekdays, 6am-9am on ABC TV.