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Scandals and a sinking ship: can This Morning survive?

If the answer to a problem is to bring in the Duchess of York to talk about the virtues of “saucy underwear”, the situation must be desperate. Last week, the beleaguered ITV daytime show This Morning made Sarah Ferguson its guest editor and presenter. She did some cooking, talked for too long about cats, made several pleas for kindness and advised two viewers on how to put the spark back into their marriage (essentially: underwear choice). It was bonkers – and not in a good way. The review in this newspaper called it “a publicity stunt designed purely to drown out the show’s obvious death rattle”.

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.

First, apparently putting a jolly (and literal) spin on the misery of the cost of living crisis, the presenters Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby – paid an estimated £700,000 each annually – gave viewers the chance to win their energy bill payments on its Wheel-of-Fortune-style phone-in competition. It fell flat and was accused of being dystopian.

A few weeks later, there was public anger over the presenters’ supposed queue-jumping to observe the queen lying in state. Once unassailable, they looked entitled, which jarred with the This Morning brand; their defence, that they were “reporting” as members of the media, felt hollow. So did their supposed best friendship, once rumours of a rift intensified.

The show had become such an institution, says the cultural and TV critic Mark Lawson, because of “its very close connection with the audience. I’m afraid that there are a lot of lonely people, and you had these happy, smiley people who were there for you for 90 minutes a day. Holly and Phil were both famous for their smile and their general likability.” The suggestion that this may be fake was fatal. As a This Morning presenter, “you’re supposed to be harmless”, says Lawson.

Stories kept appearing. This year, Schofield was dragged into the headlines during the trial of his brother, who was later jailed for sexually abusing a child. Then, in May, Schofield admitted he had had an “unwise, but not illegal” relationship with a younger colleague, about which he had previously lied. ITV dropped him (he had already resigned) and fellow presenters turned on him. “He created an atmosphere where people hated him,” said Eamonn Holmes in an interview on GB News. “People would avoid him in the corridor. He didn’t look at anybody, he didn’t know anybody’s names. Holly doesn’t know people’s names, either.”

Related: From PR disasters to vanishing viewers – is this the end for UK daytime TV?

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”.

In the past few months, there have been endless allegations of a toxic culture behind the scenes. In May, Dr Ranj Singh, who presented medical segments on the show, said he had raised concerns to ITV management about two years before. “The culture at This Morning had become toxic, no longer aligned with ITV values, and I felt like because I whistle-blew I was managed out,” he said. In June, Emily Maddick, formerly the programme’s head of news, wrote of “bullying, sexism and a toxic culture of fear and intimidation”.

At the end of May, ITV instructed a barrister, Jane Mulcahy, to lead an external review into its handling of the Schofield affair; the report is expected to be completed by the end of the year. A couple of weeks later, ITV’s chief executive, Carolyn McCall, told MPs on the House of Commons’ culture, media and sport committee that she didn’t recognise the allegations of a toxic culture. McCall and Kevin Lygo, the managing director of media and entertainment at ITV, were asked if they knew that production staff at This Morning had allegedly referred to a section of their audience as “tower block Traceys” – viewers of lower intelligence who wouldn’t understand more challenging content – in editorial meetings. The show, once cosy, familiar and light, now looked the complete opposite.

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One TV insider said complacency had crept in. The show won National Television awards for 12 years running – until this year. “They left it too long and weren’t bringing new talent through. The ratings are not what they used to be, it’s losing ground to Morning Live [the rival BBC show] and it’s not making the [advertising] money it used to for ITV.” The insider claimed the energy bills competition showed “how out of touch the show had got. ITV executives need to get out of London and see what people actually want.”

After Schofield’s demise, Dianne Nelmes, the TV producer who co-created This Morning, said the show should be axed, but added that she had felt that way for some time. When This Morning launched, the intention was to create a show that was “the best of all my favourite magazines”, she says now. “The big difference then, to now, I think, is that journalism was the absolute spine of it.”

Why did it work so well for so long? “The first thing was that, for a long time, broadcasters underestimated and neglected the female audience,” says Nelmes. “I unashamedly would say that I devised the programme to attract women. There was enough on the telly for men, but there wasn’t a lot for women and we clearly just touched a nerve. At one point, we had a 65% share of the audience, which is extraordinary by today’s standards.”

The ratings are not what they used to be, it’s losing ground to the BBC’s Morning Live and it’s not making the money it used to

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan were its first presenters. They had backgrounds as journalists and there was a down-to-earth authenticity to them (they are married) and to supporting presenters such as the resident GP, Chris Steele (the Madeley-Finnigan’s family doctor), and the agony aunt Denise Robertson. Nelmes says she wanted “real” people, not 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.”

The alleged “tower block Traceys” comment “really hurt me”, says Richmond. “The audience is right at the centre of it, so if you disrespect them, if you don’t understand them, then you’re going to find it difficult to create content that really matters to them. You need those checks and balances, and maybe that got a bit lost along the way. It’s a relationship between the programme and the viewers – and if you abuse that, then you’ve lost the heart of it.”

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan presenting This Morning in 1988
Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan presenting This Morning in 1988. Photograph: ITV/Shutterstock

Within a toxic working environment, people can fear speaking up. Even just working on a show that has been described as a sinking ship can damage a team’s confidence. “If you’ve got strong leadership, and a team that wants to do something good, and you’ve got presenters who can handle what you throw at them, then you’ve got a magical combination,” says Richmond. She suspects that “various aspects of that have weakened. People need to feel confident about what they’re doing in order to push boundaries. It’s easy to do cookery and celebrity interviews, but it’s also about finding content that really matters to people.”

The format didn’t change much over the years. Other presenters, such as Fern Britton and Ruth Langsford, were similar to Finnigan – older women with empathy and life experience. Willoughby, who joined Schofield in 2009, was different. Younger and more glitzy, she appealed to a younger audience, but perhaps the relatability was lost.

Writing in Glamour magazine in June, Maddick said Schofield and Willoughby were treated as stars, rather than colleagues, “with their daily meetings with the editor held in their dressing rooms, away from the team”. She said she was “flabbergasted by how utterly fake it all was” and that there was a difference in their personalities on-screen and off-screen. “As soon as the cameras stopped rolling, for an ad break for example, the perma-smiles would immediately slip and Phillip would often have a face like thunder complaining about minute details that he felt were going wrong or segments he didn’t like. Holly would often just sit scrolling through her phone.”

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This Morning has been through scandals before. In 2002, John Leslie was sacked as a presenter after he was wrongly named as the television personality who had raped the TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson. (He has always denied this and Jonsson has never named him. The man who identified Leslie subsequently apologised and said he had been mistaken.)

Richmond hadn’t been editor for long when that story blew up. She says she has sympathy for the current staff on the show, including the editor, Martin Frizell, who may be in trouble if ITV requires a high‑profile resignation once the inquiry is finished. “It was horrendous and it really affected the team,” says Richmond of the Leslie scandal. “It wasn’t just about the fact that it was obviously impacting the programme; it was also about somebody you worked with closely and liked.

“Also, it’s very easy to take your eye off the ball editorially, because your time is being taken up managing this crisis. We had Fern holding it together, and then eventually we got Phillip [in 2002], so quickly the show found its balance again. What’s unfortunate in this case is it’s one crisis on top of another.”

Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby interviewing Katie Price on the show in 2010.
Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby interviewing Katie Price on the show in 2010. Photograph: Ken McKay/Shutterstock

Lorraine Heggessey, a former controller of BBC One, thinks it’s partly a case of bad luck: “But every pairing does come to an end. I’ve been around long enough to know that nobody’s ever irreplaceable and usually, within moments, viewers love the new people.” When Madeley and Finnigan stepped down in 2001, “people couldn’t imagine the show without them, but it continued successfully”, she says. “I think there’s a chance for some imaginative casting and putting some new people centre-stage, but they’ve got to have broad mainstream appeal and understand that thing of speaking to an audience in a way that’s not patronising or condescending.” If rumours that the show is about to be axed are just that, the next question is: who will take over? Among its team of presenters, Dermot O’Leary and Alison Hammond are well liked and extremely capable; others tipped include Ben Shephard and Cat Deeley.

Can the show survive? “I think it can,” says Heggessey. “It’s a strong brand and it has a loyal following, albeit declining. Audiences for all traditional broadcasters are falling dramatically and they have hard decisions to make about where to spend their money. I doubt if This Morning gets many views on catchup, so you’re really reliant on what you can bring live. I think it has to have a real sense of being ‘of now’. This Morning did do that – not breaking hard news stories, but breaking some kinds of stories.”

This is why it has a reach beyond its relatively small audience figures (it gets about 600,000 viewers a day), says Max Goldbart, the international TV editor at Deadline. “What it has done quite successfully is do well out of social media. I don’t really ever watch This Morning, but I do see the big stuff that happens on it because it hits my Twitter feed.” Clips of Schofield and Willoughby corpsing always played well on social media, as do candid admissions from celebrity guests. One of the latest was Cliff Richard fat‑shaming Elvis Presley (in fairness to Ferguson, she prompted those). Lawson agrees: “In retrospect, it did actually suit the new media world, in which you want these short moments that you can tweet or post.”

It’s very easy to take your eye off the ball editorially, because your time is being taken up managing a crisis

Even in an era of streaming, Goldbart thinks there is still a place for a live magazine show that people – particularly its core demographic of older people and stay-at-home parents – tend to have on in the background. “If anything, the streaming revolution has been more disruptive for your average 9pm drama,” he says. But Heggessey points out that the show will have problems bringing in younger viewers, who have different viewing habits.

Long gone are those days when students, or children off sick from school, without other options, would tune in to watch Finnigan roll her eyes at Madeley, or hope the weatherman Fred Talbot would fall off his floating map into the waters of the Albert Dock in Liverpool (to add another footnote to This Morning’s troubled history, Talbot was convicted in 2017 of historical indecent assaults of two boys he had taught in his previous job as a teacher). “We’ll see in a generation’s time what’s going on with morning TV, but at the moment it has loyal viewers,” says Goldbart.

He doesn’t believe the cancellation of the Channel 4 daytime show Steph’s Packed Lunch should be considered alongside This Morning as an example of the wider decline of the daytime magazine show. “It was an admirable attempt for Channel 4 to get something like that up and running during the pandemic, but it’s very hard to launch a show of that ilk. I’m not sure it ever quite landed in the way they wanted it to. Channel 4 is obviously less mainstream than ITV, so it’s harder to permeate that space.” This Morning could “run and run”, he thinks, partly because the negative publicity was aimed largely at the presenters, rather than the show itself. “Does your average This Morning viewer care so much about toxicity behind the scenes? I don’t know.”

Despite its problems and whatever the future holds, it must be gratifying for the show’s co-creator to see that it has lasted this long. “It is incredible,” says Nelmes. “This is nothing to do with Phillip, but I have wondered why they’re not coming up with a new idea. I have felt for a number of years that it’s tired.” She would like to see more journalism and less celebrity. “But it’s not my show, and things do evolve.”

Additional reporting by Tara Conlan

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