Will This Morning be able to endure amidst scandals and a decline in popularity?
If the solution to a problem involves inviting the Duchess of York to discuss the benefits of “flirtatious lingerie”, it must be a dire situation. Recently, the struggling ITV daytime show This Morning featured Sarah Ferguson as its guest editor and presenter. She demonstrated some cooking, rambled on about cats, made multiple appeals for kindness, and gave advice to two viewers on how to spice up their marriage (mainly by changing their choice of underwear). It was chaotic – and not in a positive sense. The review in this publication described it as “a publicity stunt intended solely to distract from the show’s evident decline”.
This has to be the worst period in the mid-morning magazine show’s 35-year history. The wheels started coming off in September last year, although there had been trouble simmering for at least a couple of years.
Initially, it seemed that the hosts, Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, who make approximately £700,000 each year, tried to add a lighthearted touch to the serious issue of rising living costs. They offered viewers the opportunity to win money to cover their energy bills through a game on the show, similar to Wheel of Fortune. However, this segment received negative feedback and was criticized for being unsettling.
After a few weeks, the public became upset about the presenters allegedly cutting in line to view the queen’s body lying in state. Previously seen as untouchable, they now appeared privileged, which did not align with the image of This Morning; their justification that they were “reporting” as members of the media seemed insincere. The rumors of a falling out between their claimed close friendship also added to the negative perception.
Mark Lawson, a cultural and TV critic, believes that the show has gained a significant following due to its strong connection with its audience. He suggests that many people who feel lonely find comfort in the happy and friendly hosts, Holly and Phil, who are present for 90 minutes each day. However, there have been accusations that their likability may not be genuine, which has had a detrimental impact on the show’s reputation. According to Lawson, as a presenter on This Morning, one is expected to be harmless.
The media continued to report on Schofield’s personal life throughout the year. In particular, during the trial of his brother, who was ultimately convicted of sexually abusing a child, Schofield’s name was constantly mentioned in the headlines. Then, in May, Schofield publicly admitted to having a “foolish, but not illegal” relationship with a younger coworker, despite previously denying it. As a result, ITV dropped him from his position (although he had already resigned) and his colleagues also turned against him. Eamonn Holmes even stated in an interview on GB News that Schofield had created a hostile work environment and was disliked by many due to his attitude towards others.
Willoughby seemed tainted by her association with Schofield. Her insipid remark to viewers – “Firstly, are you OK?” – when she returned to This Morning in June after a short break was widely mocked and immediately became a meme. She toughed it out – then came the horrific news last month that a man had been charged for an alleged plot to kidnap and murder her. Willoughby resigned, “for me and my family”.
Recently, there have been numerous accusations of a negative environment within the production of the show. In May, Dr Ranj Singh, known for his medical segments on the show, revealed that he had previously reported concerns to ITV management two years prior. He stated, “The atmosphere at This Morning had become unhealthy and did not align with ITV’s principles. As a result of speaking out, I felt pushed out.” In June, Emily Maddick, who previously served as the programme’s head of news, spoke out about “harassment, discrimination, and a toxic atmosphere of intimidation.”
In late May, ITV hired a lawyer named Jane Mulcahy to lead an outside investigation into their handling of the Schofield situation. The results of the review are expected to be ready by the end of the year. A few weeks later, ITV’s CEO, Carolyn McCall, testified in front of MPs on the House of Commons’ culture, media, and sport committee and denied any knowledge of a toxic work environment. McCall and ITV’s managing director for media and entertainment, Kevin Lygo, were questioned about allegations that production staff at This Morning had derogatory nicknames for certain viewers and made disparaging comments about their intelligence during editorial meetings. The show, which used to have a cozy and familiar tone, now seemed completely different.
According to a TV industry source, there has been a sense of complacency within the show. Despite winning National Television awards for 12 consecutive years, this year the show was not victorious. The source believes that this was due to the show waiting too long to introduce new talent and as a result, its ratings have declined. Additionally, the show is facing competition from rival BBC show “Morning Live” and it is no longer generating as much advertising revenue for ITV. The source also mentioned that the recent energy bills competition highlighted how disconnected the show has become from its audience. The source suggests that ITV executives should step out of their London bubble and gain a better understanding of what viewers actually want.
Following Schofield’s death, Dianne Nelmes, the co-creator of This Morning, expressed her belief that the show should be cancelled. However, she had harbored this opinion for quite some time. When This Morning first debuted, the goal was to combine elements from all of Nelmes’ favorite magazines. She now acknowledges that the biggest change from then to now is the emphasis on journalism as the foundation of the show.
How was it successful for such a extended period of time? According to Nelmes, the main reason was that broadcasters didn’t recognize or pay attention to the female audience for a long time. She admits that she intentionally designed the program to appeal to women because there were already enough options on television for men. However, there was a lack of content for women and the show seemed to strike a chord with them. At one point, it even had a 65% share of the audience, which is exceptional compared to current standards.
The original presenters of the show were Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, both of whom had experience as journalists. Their marriage added a relatable and genuine aspect to the show, along with other supporting presenters like resident GP Chris Steele, who was the family doctor for Madeley and Finnigan, and advice columnist Denise Robertson. Nelmes wanted to feature “real” individuals rather than celebrities.
Shu Richmond, the show’s editor from 2002 to 2004 and later its executive producer, says Robertson was almost the moral guardian of the show; if anyone was seen to treat viewers with contempt, she would have something to say about it. Richmond says she would come bounding in to say: “This isn’t right.”
Richmond expressed that the statement about “tower block Traceys” was very hurtful. He believes that the audience is crucial in the creation of meaningful content, and disrespecting or failing to understand them can hinder this process. Having checks and balances is important, and it may have been overlooked. The relationship between the program and viewers is essential, and if it is abused, the heart of the show is lost.
In a harmful workplace, individuals may be afraid to voice their opinions. Merely being a part of a project that is deemed unsuccessful can negatively impact a team’s self-assurance. Richmond believes that having strong leadership, a motivated team, and capable presenters creates a powerful team dynamic. However, she believes that certain elements of this dynamic may have weakened. In order to take risks and push boundaries, individuals need to feel confident in their work. It is not enough to just produce cooking segments and celebrity interviews; it is also important to create meaningful content that resonates with people.
The structure remained largely unchanged throughout the years. Other hosts, including Fern Britton and Ruth Langsford, shared similarities with Finnigan – being older women with understanding and life knowledge. However, Willoughby, who joined Schofield in 2009, stood out as being younger and more glamorous, attracting a younger demographic, but potentially losing some of the relatability.
According to an article in Glamour magazine published in June, Maddick expressed that Schofield and Willoughby were treated more like celebrities than colleagues. She observed that their daily meetings with the editor took place in their dressing rooms, away from the rest of the team. Maddick stated that she was surprised by how artificial everything seemed and noticed a difference in their behavior on and off camera. When the cameras were not rolling, Schofield would often have a serious expression and complain about minor issues or segments he did not approve of, while Willoughby would often be seen scrolling through her phone.
Previously, This program has faced controversies. In 2002, John Leslie was dismissed from his role as a host due to being falsely accused as the individual who sexually assaulted Ulrika Jonsson, a TV presenter. (Leslie has consistently denied these allegations and Jonsson has not disclosed his identity. The person who accused Leslie later apologized and admitted to making a mistake.)
Richmond recently took on the role of editor, and shortly after, a significant event occurred. She expresses understanding for the current employees on the show, particularly the editor, Martin Frizell, who may face consequences if ITV demands a prominent resignation after the investigation concludes. Richmond describes the Leslie scandal as a terrible situation that deeply impacted the team. It wasn’t just about the show being affected, but also about someone she had a close working relationship with and liked.
“Additionally, it can be quite simple to lose focus on the editorial aspect when dealing with a crisis that demands your attention. Fortunately, Fern was able to keep things afloat until Phillip joined in 2002, allowing the show to regain its equilibrium. Unfortunately, in this situation, one crisis follows right after another.”
According to Lorraine Heggessey, a former head of BBC One, the end of long-standing TV partnerships is often a result of bad luck. However, she also believes that no one is irreplaceable and viewers often grow to love new hosts quickly. This was seen when Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan left the show in 2001 and it continued to be successful. Heggessey suggests that finding new hosts with broad appeal and the ability to connect with the audience without being patronizing or condescending is crucial. If rumors of the show being cancelled are untrue, the next question is who will take over. Some possibilities include current presenters Dermot O’Leary and Alison Hammond, as well as Ben Shephard and Cat Deeley.
Will the show be able to continue? According to Heggessey, yes. She believes that it is a well-established show with a dedicated fan base, although its viewership may be decreasing. With traditional broadcasters facing a steep decline in audiences, they must carefully consider where to allocate their funds. It is unlikely that This Morning receives significant views on catchup, making its live viewership crucial. Heggessey stresses the importance of staying current and relevant in order to keep the show successful. While This Morning may not break hard news, it has been known to break certain types of stories.
According to Max Goldbart, international TV editor at Deadline, this show has a larger impact beyond its relatively small daily viewership of 600,000. It has managed to utilize social media effectively, reaching a wider audience. Even though Goldbart personally doesn’t watch the show, he still sees noteworthy moments on his Twitter feed. Clips of hosts Schofield and Willoughby breaking character are popular on social media, as well as candid confessions from celebrity guests. One recent example was when Cliff Richard made a comment about Elvis Presley’s weight (although host Ferguson may have prompted it). Former TV executive Lawson also agrees that the show’s format is well-suited for the current media landscape, where short moments can be easily shared on platforms like Twitter and other social media sites.
Despite the dominance of streaming platforms, Goldbart believes that there is still a demand for live magazine shows, especially among older viewers and stay-at-home parents who tend to have them on as background noise. He argues that the impact of streaming has been more disruptive for primetime dramas. However, Heggessey acknowledges that the show may struggle to attract younger viewers due to their differing viewing preferences.
In the past, it was common for students or sick children to watch Finnigan’s eye rolls at Madeley or to hope for Fred Talbot to fall off his floating map into the waters of Albert Dock in Liverpool. However, with the troubled history of This Morning, this is no longer the case. Talbot was convicted in 2017 for indecent assaults on two boys he had previously taught as a teacher. Goldbart notes that morning TV still has a dedicated audience, but it remains to be seen what will happen in the future.
According to him, the cancellation of Steph’s Packed Lunch on Channel 4 should not be used as evidence for the overall decline of daytime magazine shows, such as This Morning. He acknowledges that it was a commendable effort for Channel 4 to launch the show during the pandemic, but it proved to be a difficult task. He believes that it did not quite meet their expectations. Additionally, he notes that Channel 4 is not as mainstream as ITV, making it more challenging to gain traction in that market. On the other hand, he believes that This Morning will continue to be successful, as the negative publicity surrounding it was directed towards the presenters rather than the show itself. He questions whether the average viewer of This Morning is concerned about the toxicity behind the scenes.
Although the show has faced challenges and uncertainty about what lies ahead, the co-creator must feel proud to see its longevity. Nelmes acknowledges this, stating, “It’s truly amazing.” However, she also questions why there hasn’t been a new concept introduced. For a while now, she has sensed that the show has become stale, although she clarifies that this is not due to Phillip. She believes there should be a stronger focus on journalism rather than celebrity content. Nonetheless, she acknowledges that the show is not solely her responsibility and that change is inevitable.
Tara Conlan contributed to the reporting.
Further information provided by Tara Conlan was also included in the report.