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Why I'm not worried about GB News
Some wild speculation that might age incredibly badly.
GB News, a new TV channel that is styling itself as an antidote to the “woke” sensibilities of the rest of broadcast news, finally launches on Sunday evening after months of hype. Before a single second has even aired, the panic and the pushback has already started. This new channel, it appears, is going to be dangerous.
Each announcement about a new presenter or programme has been met with the channel’s name shooting up the trending topics on Twitter. People like me - lefty-liberal types basically - are clearly worried about GBN brainwashing viewers as a sort-of British Fox News.
But… I’m not so worried. I think a lot of the hype around the danger the new channel poses is overheated1, and I’m sceptical it will make much of an impact.
My reasons fall into three buckets.
1) The economics of media
When the channel launches on June 13th, it will inevitably attract a huge amount of attention. It will be the top trending topic, and everyone will be watching.
Except, in reality, everyone won’t be. It’ll feel that way on Politics and Media Twitter2, and we’ll no doubt see viral clips of hosts railing against pulling down statues or woke mobs or whatever. But the reality is that the vast majority of people will not notice a new channel appearing listed on the bottom of the programme guide.
I think it’s completely plausible to imagine that when the viewing figures come in they are roughly in line with those of Russia Today or Al Jazeera. Some shows might have so few people watching that they will register as “zero” viewers with BARB, the agency that collates the figures. Then we’d see negative stories and the high profile initial talent jumping ship after their contracts run out, leading to the funders getting cold feet about the whole endeavour. A few months in, the channel could be starved of cash and enthusiasm, before the plug is unceremoniously pulled.
But on the other hand, what about Fox News? Doesn’t its success in the US, and the fact that GBN reportedly has a £60m war chest to launch with suggest that it is going to be a hit? I think the problem with this comparison is that the economics of television in this country are very different.
For example, unlike in the US, where Fox News and CNN are paid by cable companies to carry them, in this country the deal tends to work the other way around. Here, broadcasters pay hefty fees to get listed in the Sky Guide, and on Freesat’s EPG, and so on3. This is important as one of the reasons Fox News has continued to survive despite losing stacks of major advertisers is because it can always rely on the carriage fees. GB News won’t have this and will need to find advertisers if it wants to be self-sustainable4.
Similarly when it comes to bringing in cash, the channel will be limited by regulation. In the US, news programmes are often sponsored. The hosts of MSNBC’s Morning Joe have Starbucks cups displayed prominently on their desk. This isn’t allowed on news programming by Ofcom in the UK. So GBN will instead have to rely on the largesse of the manufacturers of walk-in baths, funeral insurance and whatever other companies like to advertise on obscure channels on daytime television.
Then there’s the issue of scale. The US is bigger, so there’s a bigger market for niche political content. Whether that scales down to work for UK broadcasting, I don’t know.
I think one sign GB News may struggle is that reportedly the channel is considering a membership system to pay for itself. Maybe this will work and prove an exciting new business model for supporting broadcast television, but I’m sceptical given that the most successful paywalls in media tend to be on elite publications - The Economist, the New York Times, etc - not outlets aimed at mainstream audiences.
And there is one other potential problem facing GBN, that nobody really saw coming. Literally a couple of weeks ago, Discovery, GBN’s major backer, announced a deal to merge with Warner Media to create a new media conglomerate, Warner Bros Discovery.
The merger inevitably means a corporate shake-up, and new corporate strategy. The new executives at the top may be more preoccupied with launching HBO Max internationally and making sure the next Batman film is a hit. Will they really want to have to deal with the hassle of a little watched British news channel that exists to generate grief on social media and regulatory headaches for the new company’s lawyers?5
To be clear, I think GBN could be successful. My wild speculation above could be proven completely wrong in a matter of weeks. But as a baseline, launching a new media venture is really, really hard6. So what about launching a new linear TV channel? In 2021? Surely this is even harder.
2) Broadcast is regulated
Let’s assume that GB News is successful. Or the people funding it are happy running at a loss because the channel promotes their agenda. Even if it doesn’t get many viewers or much engagement online, it could still make an impact by dragging the news agenda rightward, right? That’s what you’re almost certainly planning to tweet at me after reading the above.
Maybe, but unlike in the US where Fox News is free to broadcast whatever it pleases, GBN does not have this luxury. Because GBN has chosen to broadcast on traditional broadcast television it will be regulated and impartiality will be a requirement of its license.
This doesn’t mean that it will be like the BBC, aspiring to sit in the middle of every political debate. Instead, GBN is pursuing something closer to the LBC impartiality model, where the balance is achieved across the schedule. So if GBN wants to broadcast the Poundland Piers Morgan Variety Hour every night, it will also need to offer similar airtime to their own equivalent of James O’Brien.
I would also bet that, at least initially, one of GBN’s goals will be to establish some credibility, both with the audience and the politico-media elite7. This is one of the reasons why the channel has been on a hiring spree of traditional straight-news broadcasters8.
My prediction is that on launch night we’re going to be underwhelmed. Instead of culture war fodder about scary muslims with unusual pronouns, the coverage will be mostly focused on England’s first Euro 2020 match, and Joe Biden meeting the Queen.
3) Our existing news culture
Let’s assume that so far, I’ve been wrong. That GB News launches and is commercially successful. It isn’t enormously troubled by regulatory concerns9, and it becomes part of the background noise of British media.
My question here is: So what?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it wouldn’t be great for the blood pressure of left-wing Twitter. Every day we’ll see some controversy or other trending, and clips of presenters going off on rants doing the rounds. But… How would this be qualitatively different to what currently happens?
At the moment, the only difference is that this gap is filled by clips from TalkRadio, GMB, and LBC. The Daily Mail, Telegraph et al already provides a reliable diet of discourse fodder, from Sarah Vine or Quentin Letts or Richard Littlejohn or whoever. The discourse is, to a certain extent, zero sum and we already have plenty of right wing pantomime villains who take up space on Newsnight panels and This Morning sofas. GBN will just be another voice in an already crowded discourse marketplace.
In Britain, most newspapers already lean to the right, and collectively they already have the cultural cachet to drag the mainstream news agenda to the right. The US isn’t like this - it has right-wing outlets, but nothing with the cultural power of The Sun and the Daily Mail. In fact, the most powerful paper in the US is the New York Times, which leans liberal. That’s part of the reason Fox News has become such a powerful force over there and plays such a powerful role.
So given how different our news and media culture is, I’m sceptical that it is possible for GBN to make a similar sized impact.
What a successful GBN would mean
I am completely open to the idea that I might be wrong here. I might look back on this post with a red face when Prime Minister Mark Francois successfully brings back hanging, after a month of nightly cheerleading on GB News.
But what I do think is true is that the odds are against it. If you start with the assumption that GBN has a 100% chance of achieving the most grotesque lefty Twitter caricature of its aims and then go through my arguments knocking points off for each, I would say the odds of success become very slim indeed10.
But if GBN is successful, I do think it signals something that is worth taking seriously: If it achieves mainstream success, that means that it will be resonating. That would mean that GBN’s bet pays off, and that there is a receptive audience to the content it is producing and the message it is sending11.
So maybe rather than trying to shoot the messenger, it would be smarter for people on my side of the political spectrum12 to instead try to figure out what we’re doing wrong, and how we can reach those same people with a compelling message instead.
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Full disclosure to satisfy any bores on Twitter: Yes, Andrew Neil who is Chair of GBN is also Chair of the company that owns The Spectator, a magazine that I’ve written for a few times. You should check out my writing there, as it’s good shit, if I can say so myself. I’m only a freelancer though, so sadly it isn’t like Andrew Neil has invited me to hang out on his yacht in the south of France. I also hope they’ll let me write for them again at some point, as they either haven’t noticed or don’t seem to mind that I’m a lefty remainer.
I’m sure there are some exceptions to this, but if money is being transferred the other way it’ll be for premium content like sports and movies, not boring old news.
Going to hedge here and say this is at least my understand how it works - I’m sure someone who works in telly will correct me if I’m wrong.
The merger also makes GBN a new corporate sibling of CNN. So if anything, I would expect the merger to be something of a moderating influence on GBN as the two are inevitably forced to share resources and personnel and the like.
It’s striking that Rupert Murdoch, the great satan himself, has reportedly abandoned plans to launch his own new TV channel that was going to operate along similar lines to GBN.
Oh god, imagine that absolute shitstorm on Twitter when Keir Starmer gives his first interview to GBN.
Maybe Simon McCoy has been secretly going to bed every night praying to the ghost of Margaret Thatcher, but my guess is that his programme won’t be a million miles from something the BBC or Sky News would broadcast.
We can even imagine that Paul Dacre does get to be chair of Ofcom, if you like, and does have to spend his time doing Boris’s bidding rather than adjudicating on whether obscure satellite channels broke the rules by showing 17 minutes of adverts in a given hour rather than 16.
Honestly mostly because of the first section about launching new media ventures, because as I say, it is really, really, really hard. Just ask 18 Doughty Street, The New Day newspaper, or the countless other media properties that have sprung up and disappeared.
It would also be a sign that the right seriously has its shit together. What does the left have? Three Novara kids and a Canary?
Smug, metropolitan Remainers.