Last year, Tern TV and Green Inc won the competitive tender to produce Sunday Morning Live, BBC One’s long-running religious discussion programme, from Northern Ireland.

Brendan Hughes, Head of Tern Belfast, explains how the team took on an established and successful TV brand to make it even more successful, without breaking it.

I don’t normally go around breaking things. I just want to get that out there for starters. I am naturally quite careful. So when I was asked about how to take on an established and successful TV brand and make it even more successful, without breaking it, I really had to think.

The simple answer is just leave it alone, let it get on with doing what it does. If it ain’t broke…whatever.

But then I had a think about what we have actually done with Sunday Morning Live. Last year, Tern joined forces with Stephen Stewart’s Green Inc to take over the show. It had been running for 12 years at the time, had a good audience, and was in rude health.

It’s an important show for the BBC; we give voice to many who aren’t heard very often on any TV platform; our debates are topical and at 12-15 minutes we allow real depth and debate; and it has an astonishing mix of people from all creeds and none, ethnic groups, and gender.

The first thing we did was hire people who had worked on it before, people like Neil Dimmock, the Executive Editor, who knew how it worked, and really cared for the show. Kathy Littler who had produced it in Belfast before. And Alannah Foster, another producer who had a real emotional connection with the show and knew the audience.

Previously the show was made in NBH, in The One Show studio. We had to change studio, so chose ITN in Grays Inn Road. That gave us an excuse to refresh the set, titles and graphics. Small changes, but to us they gave us ownership of it.

And then slowly, gradually, working with the BBC Commissioner, Daisy Scalchi, we made a few tweaks. Small tweaks, but they made a difference. We played around with the running orders a bit and found that opening the show with the debate section helps to bring in the audience. Previously we had other items before the Debate, so the figures were drifting a bit.  Sometimes they stayed, sometimes not, depending on what the actual debate topic was. But now it’s firmly up there at the top and it holds the audience for longer. We are now talking about ways in which we can keep that audience in the second part of the show and develop it.

In our first series we ran with a number of different presenters alongside Sean Fletcher, our anchor. But for series two (and three and four…) we are running with Holly Hamilton. There is a stability on screen now, never mind the chemistry between them. Across the series they respond well to each other, and the whole thing feels more like a family than before. Holly is a Northern Ireland native, and lives in Holywood, where our production offices are. Having one of our own – a local – present the show also gives it a bit more texture.

Being in the Nations it’s always been important to us to ensure that National voices are hard. We made a commitment to make VTs across the UK, and we have stuck to that. It’s a small thing but every single show will have a VT from one of the four nations.

One other small tweak we have found is a way of using the studio for music and performance. In the first series we were running through the summer, so we shot a lot of that material outside. But that was impossible in the winter. Cleverly though we found that we could rejig a part of the studio and make it work for performance. Our studio crew in ITN love it, and have really worked hard to make it work. The result is that we have managed to have some really strong, emotionally warm, performances to finish the show.

Being a live show, we have spent a bit of time thinking of how we can encourage viewers to engage with us, and contribute. After trying a few things out in the first run we took on a Social Media Producer as a bit of an experiment in the last series. That really worked too.  Our audience IS engaging, and we try to include audience comments, remarks, or questions in the debate live. At the beginning we were struggling to find material for a “good news” slot at the end of the show. Now it’s more a question of what to leave out.

After two series and small steps we now feel happier with the show we have. We have a few small twists of the dial we will try in the next series, starting June 11. But the key thing is that what we are doing is “improving”, not “fixing”, and that mindset is the most important thing to keep in the forefront of our minds at all times.

Love it. Cherish it. Help it grow.

Sunday Morning Live returns to BBC One on Sunday 11th June at 10.30am




Jon Creamer

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