When This Morning’s reigning queen Holly Willoughby made her much-vaunted address to Britain’s TV-viewing public back in July, following the ignominious departure of her long-time presenting partner Phillip Schofield, she had four words for her audience: “Firstly, are you OK?”
A few months on from the peak of the scandal, which saw Schofield step down from a role he had held for more than 20 years after admitting that he had lied about an “unwise, but not illegal” affair with a younger colleague, it seems like the answer to that question is a resounding “no”. The hard proof? Last night saw This Morning lose out on the Best Daytime Show trophy at the National Television Awards, ending a 13-year winning streak. If you have even a glancing familiarity with British daytime telly, you’ll probably already be well aware that, for This Morning, this is basically the equivalent of a political party losing an extremely safe seat. It’s sure to ring alarm bells back at ITV HQ.
For years, Willoughby and Schofield had played up to their reputation as the NTA’s golden duo. When they won back in 2016, the pair turned up for filming the next morning still wearing their red carpet finery, giggling about their hangovers. At the time, it was cited as irrefutable evidence of the pair’s quote-unquote relatability: celebs with lucrative ITV deals, they’re just like us! After that, their post-NTA stupor became something of a running joke in the This Morning studios, albeit with gradually diminishing returns (a 2019 clip showing them arriving late on motorbikes, trophy aloft, sticks in the memory as particularly cringe-inducing).
Unlike, say, the Bafta TV Awards, which are voted on by industry figures, the NTAs are voted for by the public. And while the Baftas tend to recognise shows that aired in the preceding year thanks to their eligibility window, the NTAs allow viewers to share their feelings in a relatively quick turnaround: if your programme is ridden with various reputational crises in July, you can certainly expect to see that reflected in the results come September.
They’re as close to a real-time referendum on our TV likes and dislikes as we can get – and that’s why This Morning’s loss feels like the nail in the coffin for a programme that has been floundering for the best part of a year. Willoughby, doubtless with one eye on getting ahead of the story, has already posted a selfie with Jay Blades, host of the newly crowned Best Daytime Show The Repair Shop, sharing her “hugest congratulations” to him and his team. But the loss will almost certainly come as a blow.
Josh Rom, a broadcaster and showbiz journalist who attended last night’s ceremony, goes as far as describing it as “a huge ground-shifting moment” for the show. “The mist is clearing and people [can] see through the seemingly happy charade,” he adds. “The chinks in the armour and the cracks in the walls are really starting to show.”
A programme like This Morning, with its strange, magazine-y mix of real-life stories, softball celeb interviews, Accidental Partridge-style debates and allusions to Gino D’Acampo’s grandmother, relies on two key factors: the chemistry between its hosts, and the relationship that they can foster with their audience. It’s not like its ITV sibling Good Morning Britain, an altogether shoutier, brasher and more news-driven affair that thrives on drama (see: Piers Morgan storming off after co-presenter Alex Beresford took him to task over his comments on Meghan Markle). Viewers need to feel like they’re part of the gang, and not watching veneered smiles straining to cover the cracks in an allegedly toxic working environment (ITV, it should be noted, have denied that This Morning is a toxic place to work).
Willoughby’s “you OK hun?” speech tried to claw back some of this audience goodwill by aligning herself with her viewers in shocked disbelief over Schofield’s departure. “You, me and all of us at This Morning gave our love and support to someone who was not telling the truth,” she said in the slow cadence of a teacher addressing their primary school pupils about the sad loss of a class pet. “That is a lot to process.” For many viewers, it came across as inauthentic – a real misstep for a show that has always thrived on authenticity (or at least some stage-managed form of it). This Morning might “still [be] a commercial success for ITV” but, as Rom notes, “the damage has been done and the unwritten contract with the viewers has been well and truly broken”.
It’s not just about the Schofield scandal or the subsequent allegations of workplace toxicity. Before that, we had the so-called “queue-gate” row, when Schofield and Willoughby were seen to be jumping ahead of members of the public (as well as David Beckham, dressed in a Peaky Blinders hat for the solemn occasion) to play their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Hall. It was just the sort of thing to make them seem out of step with the middle England audience they were supposed to be representing. There was also the exceedingly ill-judged competition in which viewers could try and win the cost of four months’ energy bills, which was branded as “dystopian” on social media. It certainly left an unpleasant taste in the mouth – a pair of well-remunerated presenters grinning cheerfully as people phoned in to try and cover the cost of basic amenities.
So can this ITV juggernaut ever be fixed, or is it time for the broadcaster to put it out of its misery? If advertisers are staying with the show, it is likely to stick around – but advertisers only want to throw money at programmes that can guarantee a loyal audience. If This Morning wants to regain some of its former golden touch, bosses need to act fast to redevelop the relationship with that audience, suggests PR and talent manager Carla Speight. “They’ve fired out too many statements and are now approaching things with a ‘business as usual’ stance, which is clearly not working,” she says. “Fans of the show need to be reconnected with and maybe it’s time they looked at the format of the show… For a while now, [it] has been the same as it always has been, which can become a little dated and out of touch.”
That should mean decisive action when it comes to shaking up the presenting team, which has been in a state of flux for months with a revolving line-up of guest hosts on the sofa. There are glimmers of hope: This Morning’s secret weapon is undoubtedly Alison Hammond (surely one of the only interviewers who has ever managed to get a laugh out of the famously grumpy Harrison Ford). “Alison has been a breath of fresh air to the show and they need to embrace her lighthearted, fun and friendly approach across the whole [programme],” Speight suggests.
It’s all too clear that sticking to standard practice isn’t cutting it with daytime viewers, and a “business as usual” approach underestimates their discernment just like Willoughby’s speech did. It’s time for adapt-or-die style sweeping changes at This Morning HQ. And call me a grinch if you want, but hopefully that also means never having to watch its presenters pretend to be hungover again, too.