In normal circumstances, the lower you sink in the media the higher you rise. The failure of Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley to make a success of Daybreak, a witless breakfast show that was fluffier than a cheerleader’s pompom, has therefore caused something close to consternation in the television industry.
They had everything going for them. Chiles is that rarity in British television — a successful working-class journalist who can talk to the common man. (I almost wrote, “Chiles was that rarity…” because it now feels as if he is dead.) Bleakley is beautiful, as women presenters now must be, and has a cheery screen presence. They were brilliant performers when they worked on BBC1’s The One Show, although that praise needs qualifying. The American historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the phrase “famous for being famous” as long ago as 1962 to describe how celebrity had become detached from talent. It has become a cliché, but it isn’t a full explanation. Sportsmen and women have talent. So do many actors and even a minority of pop stars and comedians. In the broadcast media, however, it is hard to deny that Boorstin defined a slice of modern culture.
You can see the emptiness of celebrity when a “television personality” dies. Some poor hack has to cut and paste an obituary, and invariably finds there is nothing to say. The audience wants to know about its friend and entertaining companion. But what were his achievements? How do you mark his life? No one has ever collected his work or thought of watching clips on YouTube of his greatest performance. At least when sportsmen and women die you can say that they won so many Grand Slams, Olympic medals, Test series or Champions League trophies. At least with an actor there are Oscars — not the best guide to greatness, I grant you — or films and television dramas that people watch years after they were made.
Nothing remains of celebrities who are truly famous for being famous. Remembering them is like remembering dead newsreaders. They have no achievements beyond being personable.
That does not mean that anyone could do as they do. It requires a kind of talent to be ordinary on television. Just as you never meet someone who could be a reality star in reality, so you never meet a man in a pub who can come across on screen as the man you’d like to meet in the pub, or a woman who can convince a national audience that she is the ideal version of the girl next door. When a colleague of Chiles talked of his brilliance, I bridled, thinking in my elitist way that brilliance must be tied to worth. But in the presenter’s terms the compliment made sense. Chiles, he told me, stood alongside Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton as natural performers who could be themselves on air, seemingly without thought or artifice. Bleakley was not in Chiles’s league. But she too knew as if by instinct where the cameras were and what she must do.
Successful couples on television — always an older man and younger woman — give the audience the subliminal impression that they are lovers. The chemistry between Chiles and Bleakley was so overpowering that they had to deny that they were having an affair. They made The One Show, an undemanding magazine programme, a hit for the BBC. ITV stole them by offering fantastic sums of money, confident that they could turn around its breakfast show, which lagged behind the slightly more serious offering on the BBC. Few doubted that they could. They were the hottest properties in British television.
They are now disasters: flops who raise questions about why British television values what it so loosely calls “the talent” so highly. ITV’s already poor ratings collapsed. The stars, who once looked as if they were ready to jump into bed with each other, now looked as if they had hired divorce lawyers. Bleakley turned from the girl next door into a perma-tanned WAG, complete with a boyfriend from the Premier League — an image with little appeal to viewers enduring a recession. Chiles looked miserable. Daybreak took to running advertising breaks with no advertisements in them. A forlorn ITV was telling marketing managers that slots were for sale, if someone, anyone, wanted them. As great as the loss of advertising revenue was the loss of money from gullible viewers willing to phone ITV’s premium-rate lines to enter the show’s competitions. In November, ITV recognised that it had made a monumental blunder and announced Chiles and Bleakley would be leaving the show.
The comforting explanation for their failure is that ITV vastly overestimated the ability of star turns to draw an audience, just as the executive remuneration committees of Anglo-Saxon capitalism vastly overestimated the ability of superstar chief executives to deliver profits. “Stardom isn’t a profession, it’s an accident,” said Lauren Bacall, who was wiser than many media managers. Some suggested that, without the help of the unsung production team on The One Show, who had made them famous, Chiles and Bleakley floundered. Although this argument is often true — showbusiness history is littered with stars who went from the BBC to ITV for more money and failed to hold on to the audience they once commanded — it cannot be a true reason for the Daybreak debacle. Chiles and Bleakley in fact took many members of The One Show production team with them. They were not egotists. They understood that the efforts of others helped make them famous.
The truth is more depressing. Chiles, Bleakley and their editors failed because they tried to push their show just an inch upmarket. They wanted to compete with the BBC’s Breakfast, which is hardly television’s equivalent of The Times or the Today programme, just a light programme with superficial news coverage. Chiles, who trained as a financial and sports reporter, was well-suited to the task. But his efforts were too much for the viewers. Media commentators have tried to cover up the dismal facts of the case by saying that Chiles’s interest in football repelled women. This may be right, but the main reason for the disaster is that viewers could not stand the news of the great issues of the day that ought to concern every citizen interrupting the celebrity interviews, fashion tips and recipes, even for a short time.
The sad, silly story of Daybreak provides a good reason for cultural pessimism. ITV lost money because it overestimated the intelligence of its public. It did not sink low enough — a mistake, one assumes, that it will not make again.