Breakfast hosts Andrew Rochford, Paul Henry and Kathryn Robinson.

Andrew Rochford, Paul Henry and Kathryn Robinson are attempting to get the right chemistry on Channel Ten's Breakfast.

IN A business governed by numbers, you would figure Channel Ten is rather worried about Breakfast. While its direct rivals slug it out for No.1 and No.2, the show's ratings are in the toilet.

Ten's foray* into the morning news market began on February 23 with a modest 51,000 viewers. By March its audience appeared to have settled around the mid-40,000 mark, but it has since regularly dipped below 30,000 - twice in May bottoming out at a mere 22,000 viewers. Compared with the 300,000-plus who regularly watch Today on Channel Nine and Sunrise on Channel Seven, Breakfast looks to be in trouble.

Not so, says Anthony Flannery, Ten's director of news and current affairs and the man charged with helping the show find its feet.

Ten has ''no target'' in mind in terms of audience size, he insists. When the network decided to ditch its early-morning line-up of children's cartoons for its foray into the breakfast news space, ''We just said, 'Let's get in there and join the crowd and see where we can go.'''

Getting it right will take time, Flannery says, but Breakfast doesn't have the clear air in which to experiment that its rivals enjoyed in their early days. ''Sunrise [launched in 2002] worked under the radar for three to four years, Today [launched 1982] was the only program in that space for a couple of decades, so they were able to get their act together. We've come in to what is probably the most congested, fragmented and competitive part of the schedule. It's up to us to keep massaging our program until we get it right.''

To date it's been more a case of the light rub-down than the deep pummel as Ron Wilson has taken over newsreading duties from Kathryn Robinson in a bid to allow her ''to develop the relationship'' with her co-hosts, Paul Henry and Andrew Rochford. ''She was always prepping and marking up scripts and researching for those newsbreaks, and it's very difficult to get out of that and come in and be part of a wider conversation,'' Flannery says. ''Now we're allowing her to develop as a presenter.''

Flannery says Breakfast is structured around the needs of a viewership that typically spends no more than 20 minutes with the show while preparing for the day ahead. ''We have to engage with people in those cycles so they can get their news, their weather, their sport and their topics they can discuss at work or school.''

Flannery is determined that Breakfast not merely imitate its competitors. ''We want to have our own voice, our own personality. I keep telling our hosts they're dance partners. They've got to learn their steps without treading on each other's toes and that takes a while to work.''

There's little doubt the lord of this particular dance is Henry. The effervescent New Zealander is not to everyone's liking, but Flannery has no doubt he's an asset. ''There was all this talk, a lot of it unfounded and uneducated, about him being a shock jock, but Paul's one of the best interviewers you'll come across.

''He says it as he sees it, he'll say the things that people are thinking, but he'll also ask the hard questions when he needs to.''

One of the keys to the show succeeding, Flannery says, is ''giving Paul Henry more time to be himself''.

Another, he says, is getting much-needed marketing support. ''There's huge numbers of people [who] still don't recognise there's a breakfast news program on Ten.''

Ah, numbers. Surely the ratings are cause for concern? ''It's a low sample at that time of day, they're bouncing around a lot,'' Flannery says, pointing to the fact that the OzTam sample works out at about one survey viewer for every 5000 potential viewers. Not that he's making excuses, he adds. ''We all play by the same rules so I'm not going to blame those numbers, but you get one meter turned off and that's thousands of viewers.''

Besides, he says, the audience is up on what it was - admittedly from a low base - and ad revenue has more than doubled (boosted by the fact that Ten is no longer limited to the ads that can be shown during a C-rated slot).

In the end, he insists, these things can't be rushed. ''I've said all along it's going to take time. It's going to take us months to get our format working and once that's working you're continuously reassessing it. It could take a couple of years to get it up there in a really strong ratings position.''

That's a long time to ask management to hold its nerve, isn't it? ''Well it is, but if you look at what happened with Sunrise, it took them close to five years.''

Only time will tell if Ten truly has the legs for such a marathon.

 

* As some readers have kindly reminded us, Ten was in the breakfast space previously with Good Morning Australia.