TV-am was a TV company that broadcast the ITV franchise for breakfast television in the United Kingdom from 1 February 1983 until 31 December 1992. The station was the UK’s first national operator of a commercial breakfast television franchise. Its daily broadcasts were between 6am and 9.25am. Throughout its ten years of broadcast, the station regularly had problems resulting in numerous management changes, especially in its early years. It also suffered from major financial cutbacks hampering its operations. Though being on a stable footing by 1986 and winning its ratings battle with BBC Breakfast Time, within a year further turmoil ensued when industrial action hit the company.
While the BBC’s Breakfast Time was successful, TV-am’s early ratings were disappointing. Its high-minded and somewhat starchy approach, summed up in chief executive Peter Jay’s phrase “mission to explain”, sat uneasily at that time of day, compared to Breakfast Time’s accessible magazine style, which mixed heavy news and light-hearted features (famously moving cabinet ministers, after a serious interview, to help with a cookery demonstration).
The first day of broadcasting included an hour of hard news in Daybreak, a short film and an interview with Norman Tebbit about the current level of unemployment, a live comic strip called The World of Melanie Parker, and Though the Keyhole.
Within two weeks of the launch the ratings dropped sharply. From the start of March, Daybreak was reduced by 30 minutes and presented by Gavin Scott
Good Morning Britain was moved 30 minutes earlier to start at 06.30, with Angela Rippon joining.. A month after launch, the ratings fell again to just under 300,000.
The company’s weekend show presented by Michael Parkinson initially became the only success for the station, largely because the BBC did not broadcast on weekend mornings. The Saturday editions drew 1.5 million viewers.
A boardroom coup ensued on 18 March 1983, when Peter Jay stepped aside allowing Jonathan Aitken to become chief executive of the station, after mounting pressure from investors who had demanded changes. On the same day Angela Rippon and Anna Ford came out publicly to support Peter Jay, unaware he had already left. A month later both Rippon and Ford were sacked. A few months later, Anna Ford encountered Jonathan Aitken at a party in Chelsea; in a parting shot over the terms of her dismissal, Ford threw her glass of wine in the face of Aitken, saying of her action: “It was the only form of self-defence left to a woman when she has been so monstrously treated”. A couple of days later both Rippon and Ford started procedures to sue TV-am, by October, the case was dropped after reaching an out of court settlement.
A month later, cousin Timothy Aitken became chief executive of the station due to the IBA rules regarding MPs operating a television station. Parkinson ended up in lengthy talks with Aitken over the issues and the sacking of his two former colleagues, which resulted in him becoming a director of the company and joining the board of management.
On Friday 1 April 1983 (good Friday) Roland Rat made his first appearance. Roland was devised by TV-am Children’s editor Anne Wood to entertain younger viewers during the Easter holidays, which boosted the station’s audience. Roland is generally regarded as its saviour, being described as “the only rat to join a sinking ship”. During the summer, when Breakfast Time hosts Frank Bough and Selina Scott were off, Roland helped take the audience from 100,000 to over a million.
In early April 1983, David Frost was moved to the Sunday slot, and was replaced by sports presenter Nick Owen to front the Good Morning show, with Anne Diamond joining from the BBC to become his co-presenter, six weeks later.
At the same time, Greg Dyke was brought in as director of programmes to help overhaul the station’s output. During April, the live comic strip, “The World of Melanie Parker” was axed.
On Monday 23 May 1983, TV-am’s new look start Daybreak was axed, with Good Morning Britain extending to start at 6.25. Commander David Philpott was moved to present the weather at the weekends only, with Wincey Willis becoming the new weekday weather presenter, and a host of new features were introduced:
“History of Today” by Jeremy Beadle
An Exercise spot with Mad Lizzie
Cooking with a retired Vicar called the Cooking Cannon (Rustie Lee would later take over)
Fishing correspondent, “Cod-father”
Nick with Lynda Barry (later succeeded by Anne), reading out the newspaper Bingo numbers.
By the end of its first week TV-am’s ratings had doubled to 200,000.
Its continued low audiences brought financial problems. The company was close to having its power supply disconnected – a London Electricity official arrived during a press conference with a warrant to cut off power for non-payment. On numerous occasions, the presenters failed to receive their monthly wages, while the local newsagent stopped supplying the station with newspapers due to lack of payment. To save money, the show spent the summer on the road, using the Outside Broadcast truck from various seaside resorts around the UK, and was presented by Chris Tarrant.