Today show producer wants a studio at Barangaroo
Today producer Neil Breen talks breakfast ratings, Karl misbehaving and hopes for a studio space at James Packer's new casino.
And if Today show executive producer Neil Breen has his way the Nine show could one day call Jamie Packer’s new Barangaroo casino as home.
“I’m not moving to Bondi,” he joked, “although no-one knows what they’re going to be doing when Packer’s new casino opens at Barangaroo. There could be a good vantage point out of there.
“You have to be careful with your location. You can’t say ‘Let’s go to Circular Quay!’ because if you’re in Melbourne you don’t want to see the Opera House every day. That’s a Sydney show. You don’t even want to lose 10,000 viewers in Melbourne.
“The view from Barangaroo is not going to have much iconic Sydney behind it because it’s on the other side of the Harbour Bridge.
“But I was sitting here watching Packer win Barangaroo thinking ‘Gee, it would be good to broadcast out of that building’ with its generic piece of harbour as opposed to the Opera House.”
Breen took over as executive producer of Today last December after David Gyngell convinced the former Sunday Telegraph editor to switch from print to television.
“I always thought when I finished at the Sunday Tele that unless I did another editorship at another paper I’d rather try something else. I never wanted to be a carpet stroller. I love being a journalist and absolutely love working,” he told TV Tonight.
“So I was thinking about various options and News Limited had spoken to me about moving over to FOX Sports integrate it with the papers better. That was a really generous offer for me to do that but in the end I thought ‘If I’m going to work in TV I’ll go to one of the big networks’ and I thought I could handle the Today show.”
Breen had already been a regular guest on the show and was familiar with the team. But in his first television role, he admits Gyngell was worried about him failing.
“At times he was saying that maybe I could be (News director) Darren Wick’s deputy and learn the ropes. But I’d rather have a job. Then Nine started thinking about putting Tom Malone into 60 Minutes and that was when I said ‘I can do the Today job,'” he says.
“So it was the pieces of the jigsaw moving around and I was lucky it fell my way.”
He started during the summer break when the pressure was less volatile. While he was comfortable in knowing how to tell stories to an audience, he still had to become conversant with the technicalities of television.
“I’m not going to tell the director what camera to use. My job is to provide the best possible content I can, which stimulates the host, to put on the best show we can to win,” he says.
“I ring Tom Malone a lot! He never gets annoyed which is good. I listen to Gyng, I listen to Darren Wick, I listen to Karl and Lisa, my senior staff, the director. It’s not always easy because you have your own ideas but ultimately you’re the final decision maker for the show.”
Amongst some of the subtle changes, he nominates bringing a sharpness to the show’s journalism, transitioning openers at 7 and 8am into a top story rather than a news bulletin, and bringing a sense of fun to key times such as 8:20 and 8:40 am.
He told regular guests they could only appear once a week and added new regulars in Amanda Blair, Robert Craddock, Eddie McGuire, Jennifer Hewitt, Miranda Devine and Stephanie Rice. Chef Neil Perry is next to join the show.
Sometimes Today‘s fun has been accused of going too far, especially when the males on the show get together. Breen is mindful of balancing the fun with the serious and Karl Stefanovic is at the centre of both.
“We have to entertain people. We can’t just do 3.5 hours of ABC News Breakfast,” he insists.
“When (Karl) does say something stupid he’ll talk to me later about it and say, ‘Have I pushed it too far?’
“And I’ll say ‘Yeah you have’ or ‘No, you probably got away with it.’
“Gyngell will ring me too and say ‘Mate, tell Karl to pull his head in, he’s being a d*ck today.’”
Building on the work of his predecessor has been paying off, with the battle with Sunrise closer than ever.
In 2013 Sunrise is averaging 356,000 national viewers to Today‘s 347,000.
Today is in front in Melbourne and Sydney -although Sunrise is clawing back in Sydney. It’s a daily battle between the two commercial shows, with a third about to re-enter the fray.
Last year Today won the East Coast which Nine sees as important to its Nine-owned stations, while Seven takes a more national outlook.
“The first goals were to restore the audiences in Melbourne, Sydney, eventually win the East Coast. The battle now is to win Brisbane and go on into Adelaide and Perth which are the frontiers we’re struggling to conque,” he explains.
“I think Today is a safe show and could probably take a few more risks. But I’m not quite ready. The audience built through last year, and it’s building again this year. (National numbers) have built 2% this year but I’d hoped it would have been more than that. Sunrise has fallen 4.7% so I would have hoped that we could have scooped up more than that.”
“Melbourne is something we’re really proud of, that we have that great audience there. Christine Ahern is a major asset to the show, there’s nothing she can’t handle. Obviously having Neil Mitchell and Eddie McGuire is great for us.
“But Melbourne News came back. Hugh Nailon has done a great job and he’s a great News Director, so we capitalise off that.
“Our improvement this year is reflected by the network’s improvement. News and Current Affairs has been having a great year and Seven seems to be having a soft year and doesn’t seem to be able to decide what to do with Today Tonight. I think uncertainty in TV is a killer. Uncertainty in any media is a killer.
“I’d love to win Adelaide and Perth but I’ve really got my sights on Brisbane. If we can consistently win Brisbane then most of our battle is complete.
“But I can’t sit here and say ‘I’m going to go hell-bent for Brisbane’ because it might cost you your dominance in Melbourne.”
While his mood is buoyant, Breen says the fight is nevertheless focussed on a very select group of viewers.
“320,000 are coming to both sides every day. You’re competing for the 50,000 – 60,000 flickers. It’s a bit like federal politics,” he maintains.
“I think there are more swing viewers in the market at the moment.
“And that opens the door for Channel TEN because they’ll see the volatility and think ‘People are flicking around they might come to us.’”
Seven’s much-publicised changes to Sunrise hosts may well be a moment of opportunity, especially if viewers decide to sample the opposition.
“I think Sam Armytage is fantastic. She’s the reason Weekend Sunrise causes trouble for Weekend Today,” he says.
“But I think it helps us in Brisbane because I think Mel was wildly popular up there.”
Last week Breen joined his opposition, Sunrise producer Michael Pell and TEN’s Adam Boland for a forum at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Despite recent headlines which may indicate otherwise, they all got along well.
“It was fun. The three of us went out for dinner afterwards, which was good fun,” says.
“There’s nothing about Seven that Boland doesn’t know, so Seven is more susceptible than we would be. Adam knows more about what makes the Sunrise audience tick than he knows about what makes the Today audience tick, so his brain will be skewed towards ‘How do I get them, because I know them?’
“But I think it’s great they’re in the marketplace. It’s great to compete.”
Today airs 5:30-9am weekdays on Nine.