It’s been a tumultuous few months for ABC but today the broadcaster has cause to celebrate as News Breakfast celebrates its 10th birthday.
Even when you become the news you still have to report it as Virginia Trioli and Michael Rowland have done following the exit of managing director Michelle Guthrie and chairman Justin Milne.
“There was no choice about that,” Trioli admits frankly. “It’s all been way above our pay-grade. We have no knowledge or connection to any of those machinations. But it’s a major corporation, publicly-funded, so there was an obligation on us to report it dead straight.”
“Viewers can sniff out fake relationships and pretend-smiles a mile off”
Authenticity is everything and a virtue ABC journalists cherish dearly, even when working in breakfast television.
“Viewers can sniff out fake relationships and pretend-smiles a mile off,” says Rowland. “I think that’s a huge difference we’ve had compared to other combinations over the 10 years that we’ve been on air. But they also take a while to become more familiar with you as a presenter, too.
“So we’re in a happy place now, not just Virginia and I but Paul Kennedy, another foundation member of the cast, Nate Byrne as terrific weather addition and Del Irani as our finance editor.
“Each and every one of them has familiarity with the audience.”
Originally launching on on 3 November 2008 as ABC News Breakfast on ABC2, Virginia Trioli and sport presenter Paul Kennedy were joined by Barrie Cassidy, Joe O’Brien and weather presenter Vanessa O’Hanlon. Michael Rowland joined in 2010 and the show moved to News 24.
“I remember when Kate Torney and John Cameron came to me with the idea to go back to Melbourne to present a news breakfast show,” Trioli recalls.
“I was working for Lateline and I went to my EP the marvellous John Bruce… and I said ‘What do you reckon?’ He said ‘You never ever turn down the opportunity to be the foundation presenter of a new show the corporation is backing.’
“There were no guarantees it would work”
“There were no guarantees it would work or that we wouldn’t be taken off the air in 6 months, but you give it a red hot go.”
Initial numbers for the ambitious project were especially modest
“It was like crickets because very few people were watching! So it was family and friends who were being very encouraging.
“But you build it up one by one.”
Over the years Trioli and Rowland have been on air as international news has broken, including MH17 shot over Ukraine, Boston and Manchester bombings, Mumbai attacks and, much closer to home, the 2011 ABC helicopter crash with reporter Paul Lockyer, cinematographer John Bean, and pilot Gary Ticehurst.
“That was a really hard morning for me”
“With close friendships with 2 of those people that was a really hard morning for me,” Rowland reflects.
Trioli revealed a personal side when reporting the death of music icon, Prince.
“There was a moment where I couldn’t get through reading the comments and Michael said ‘Are you alright?’ So it’s a nice partnership.
“There is a fragility and a tenderness, first thing in the morning. People are just emerging from that sleepy state. So you have to be straight and direct with them but a little bit protective as well. It’s a tricky thing to do.
“The real skill of our programme is we managed to find the tone early and well.”
“To have our audience stabilise or plateau at a time of loss in TV is great.”
News Breakfast is now averaging 152,000 metro viewers (across ABC and ABC News channels) holding steady while others in the ratings race have seen audience declines.
“To have our audience stabilise or plateau at a time of loss in TV is great. But we also have a large -and sadly not yet properly documented- audience on Facebook and iview. A lot of people say they watched us on the train with their headphones on,” Rowland explains.
“Especially a lot of younger viewers.”
“One cohort within the ABC who always got us and backed us to the hilt were our foreign correspondents,” observes Trioli.
“We were on air while they were still at work and we were a new place for them to turn up and do a slightly different style of reporting. They would file pieces for AM and News but they got to have a real time, in-situ chat with us.
“So they have been great friends of the programme.”
But it wouldn’t be Breakfast TV without behind-the-scenes drama and presenter gossip. Most of that seems confined to commercial programmes. These two are’t giving anything away.
“Our brains are geared to be social beings so we’re constantly watching on-air partnerships wondering if really like each other. But I find that dynamism and energy really interesting.
“It’s actually a charming part and a reflection of that fact that our viewers are genuinely engaged with us.”
The full ABC team, including with sports presenter Georgie Tunny, will meet their audience in person today at an outdoor birthday bash on the banks of the Yarra. Viewers can dig into the no-expense-spared sausage sizzle under the tongs of guest Matt Preston.
“We really want to turn the cameras on them. I want to hear about their stories, why they watch us and where they’ve come from. We have people coming from interstate to be there, which is enormously humbling,” Trioli continues.
“It will be a great, great portrait of the extraordinary audience that the ABC has.”
“These hours will kill you. But I love it.”
Lastly, I ask how long they see themselves hosting a show with such a punishing schedule?
“If I’m still here doing this in 10 years’ time shoot me!” Trioli jokes. “When I started this show I basically looked like Taylor Swift and now I look like an old hag! These hours will kill you. But I love it. I’m dedicated and committed to this show… but I can’t imagine I will still be here in 10 years’ time.
“The hours are challenging, and you’d be lying if you said they weren’t,” Rowland agrees. “But it is the best job in the ABC, radio, TV or digital.
“You get to do everything, you get to travel, but most importantly you get to engage with the fantastic ABC audience.”
News Breakfast 10th Anniversary special 6am today ABC, ABC News & iview.