From the moment it was announced that Joe Hildebrand was joining Ita Buttrose on Channel Ten's new morning show, you could almost hear The Odd Couple theme starting to play. She's so classy and he's so… gauche. She's so prim and he's so… improper. She's Ita Freaking Buttrose and he's just your average Joe – albeit one with a knack for saying the wrong thing at the right time, and making good TV in the process.
Just how, many wondered, would Ita handle Joe?
For Hildebrand – Daily Telegraph columnist and the driver of ABC's Shitsville Express – the question is slightly ridiculous. "People say, 'Ita, how are you going to keep Joe in line?'" he tells us after one of his final show rehearsals. "And Ita's like, 'I used edit his bloody newspaper!' Everyone's totally scared of her, but she's completely unflappable. You can ask her absolutely anything. There's nothing she hasn't done."
When we ask Buttrose the same question, she's almost dismissive. How will Ita handle Joe? "He's just a bloke," she says, and leaves it at that.
Hildebrand and Buttrose are the two main drawcards on Studio 10, the Pyrmont-based morning show that will follow Wake Up, Channel Ten's new challenger to Sunrise and Today. Airing weekdays at 8.30am, Studio 10 will also feature Jessica Rowe and Sarah Harris, and is the baby of Sunrise creator Adam Boland. The third-place network is banking on both programmes to carve out a space for it in the a.m. – to give it a fresh identity and avoid, at all costs, a repeat of last year's short-lived and embarrassing Breakfasts. You know, the one with the abrasive Kiwi.
What will make Studio 10 different to the competition, Mornings and The Morning Show? "Us," is Buttrose's blunt response. That, and a live studio audience, who will laugh and ooh and cheer along with the folks watching in their PJs and bathrobes at home. Buttrose, who's commanded boardrooms and auditoriums, and Hildebrand, a frequent panel moderator and TV regular, are both used to live audiences. But the key to a successful panel programme is chemistry more than experience. Do they have it?
"There's going to be some sugar and spice," Hildebrand says. "Ita's classy and respectable, sensible and measured, and I'm the opposite of those things." They've been out drinking, he tells us, and are working each other out in rehearsals – but Buttrose started her work even before that. "I'd started reading his column avidly to see if I could find the truth behind the man," she tells us. "I'd say we probably are both fascinated by how our respective minds work and where we take a topic. I like the way Joe's mind works – it's very interesting… and challenging at times."
Hildebrand admits he is "predictably unpredictable". Which is what makes the almost stereotypical newspaperman – shaggy of hair, foul of mouth – such unexpectedly good TV. He's the guy who isn't afraid to force a visibly irritated Melanie C into a Spice Girls sing-along on The Morning Show as well as the guy who so poignantly comforted a foreign student shaken up by watching footage of the Cronulla riots on Dumb, Drunk and Racist.
He says he won't be toning himself down for cereal-hour telly, just as he says he wouldn't for the MCA earlier this year – when the museum expressed concern over his handling of an early debate in the 'MCA on the Rocks' panel series, he pulled out of the remaining events. "In terms of whatever opinion I want to have or whatever strange facial expression I want to pull, I don't think anyone would be foolish enough to tell me not to. And why would they?"
Buttrose's challenge might be somewhat different. Editor, businesswoman, political force, Packer confidante, Australian of the Year, Paper Giant… can the woman used to being in charge do what the guy in her ear mic is telling her? Can Ita not be the boss? "I've never had any trouble being part of a team," says Buttrose. "I did play football until I was 11 and my mother said I wasn't allowed any more. And I played basketball at school. [On the show] I like the fact that you can interact and bounce things off."
The combined challenge for the whole Studio 10 team is, of course, to make a successful morning TV programme on Channel Ten. Which will be no easy feat against the dug-in Sunrise and Today, who have seen their own ratings battle heat up in recent months. After the addition of Lisa Wilkinson to Today in 2007, the Nine show grew into a real competitor, beating Sunrise on occasion; but since Samantha Armytage took over the co-host slot on Sunrise from Mel Doyle this year, the Channel Seven show has been streaking ahead.
Viewers have fierce loyalties to those they watch when their hair's not yet done and their teeth not yet brushed, but those loyalties can shift: witness the deflating US Today Show on NBC – the longtime juggernaut has seen fierce competition from rivals eat into its ratings dominance and backstage gossip (recall short-lived co-host Ann Curry's teary, awkward farewell last year) seriously dent the popularity of star host Matt Lauer.
What happens when Wake Up and Studio 10 step into the local fray is anyone's guess. But Buttrose and Hildebrand say they aren't feeling the pressure. "We accept that we have been given a terrific opportunity and we have very fierce competitors," says Buttrose, "and our competitors have lifted their game and will continue to lift their game because we've come along… But none of us are shrinking violets and all of us have only one goal in mind: to be the best we can be." Hildebrand's plan if anything goes wrong, he says, is to "blame everything on Ita."
It still feels like a risk for the journalist who was travelling along nicely on the success of Shitsville Express and Dumb, Drunk and Racist. And who also has a dayjob writing for the Telegraph, is in the throes of writing a book and whose wife is about to have a baby. While he admits that timewise, "in a nutshell, I'm fucked", the new show was too good an opportunity to pass up.
"I think Gore Vida once said, 'One should never pass up a opportunity to have sex or appear on television.' It's like the Julia Gillard thing: she became Prime Minister at the absolute wrong time and cursed herself, her party, her own future, career and legacy in the process. People say, 'Why? Why? Why?' and I would say, 'Why?', but the fact is when someone hands you something on a platter that you've always wanted it's impossible to say no. And it's the same when someone says, 'Would you like your own TV show with infomercials by Jonathan Coleman?'"
Hopefully it goes a bit better for you than it did for Gillard, we offer. "Quite frankly," says Hildebrand, "if it lasts as long as the Gillard Government that will be a new record for a Channel Ten morning show – I'd be happy with that."
Studio 10 airs weekdays 8.30am from Mon Nov 4 following Wake Up, weekdays at 6.30am.