Gardner’s abrupt exit from the show certainly speaks volumes about the climate she and her colleagues have been working in at Nine (which also owns this masthead).
“I learned a lot. I have no regrets, even though the scrutiny and public discourse has been daunting and disproportionate. It’s also at times been cruel,” Gardner later reflected on her year as co-host.
But “chemistry”, or a lack of it, is only part of the formula needed for television success.
Indeed it would seem television executives are using the personality excuse rather than looking at the actual content of their shows and how relevant it is in today’s world of social media feeds, streaming services and podcasts.
There is more competition for audiences than ever before.
One could argue Sunrise‘s Samantha Armytage and David Koch’s supposed “chemistry” was no more palpable than Gardner and Knight’s, and yet Sunrise – which is virtually identical to Today in format – has held on to its lead position, while Today‘s ratings have sunk to record lows, despite glimmers of hope earlier in the year of audiences returning.
Koch and Armytage are also very different people. They too were paired up more or less by default – just like Gardner and Knight – after Koch’s previous long-term co-host Melissa Doyle was dethroned in 2013.
Officially, Doyle “resigned” from the job on air, but reports claimed executives had been planning her removal for months.
There was no denying the frosty climate around Doyle and her replacement Armytage in the months that followed, despite the smiling faces on camera.
Now, six years later Nine is banking on the chemistry of incoming hosts, the newly resurrected Karl Stefanovic and Allison Langdon, to turn the tide for Today.
But we are not talking about your usual kind of match-making when it comes to these arranged television “marriages”.
Indeed, finding the right combination of personalities and egos – which can translate to compelling viewing and attract the greatest audience and advertising dollars – is one of the great dark arts of modern television.
Add to that the task of managing talent and their individual ambitions, cut-throat competition from rival shows, constant scrutiny around daily ratings figures and duelling over an ever fragmenting audience, and it is easy to see why breakfast television has become such a hotbed of intrigue over the past decade.
But with around $120 million worth of advertising between arch rivals Sunrise and Today, the spoils are there to be taken by whoever can claim victory.
Last week I stood in an overgrown staff courtyard at the back of Channel Nine talking to Stefanovic and Langdon about the challenges that face them.
It was clear they have great on-screen chemistry, having worked together for over 15 years, and both of them are acutely aware of the evolving media landscape.
“We both know people have more options than ever before when it comes to winning their attention in the mornings, and we want to make sure our stories are delivered in a way that fits into that, and that people can trust us with the stories we give them,” breakfast TV veteran Stefanovic said.
Nodding in agreement, Langdon added: “We might just be background in some houses. Parents are making kids’ school lunches. People are leaving the house to get to work. But I know when important news needs to be delivered we have enough combined experience and knowledge to be able to cut through … and also have a bit of fun along the way. And yes, we can disagree and still like each other.”
Here’s hoping they still feel that way in a year’s time.
Andrew Hornery is a senior journalist and Private Sydney columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.