British TV is littered with past examples of companies that have tried to take a “sideways” attempt at running a commercial channel, orthogonal to what viewers are known to want and expect, and wound up rapidly having the shit kicked out of them by the brutal logic of the marketplace. Three jump readily to mind. Associated-Rediffusion, the first ITV company to come on air in 1955, tried to confound expectations of the new commercial network by ploughing a lonely “more highbrow than the BBC” furrow before realising that nobody wanted that and having to reverse course. Then in 1968, LWT arrived as the satirist David Frost’s attempt to do the precise same “more-artsy-than-thou” schtick, only at the weekends in London; an attempt that failed even more dismally than Rediffusion’s and wound up with Rupert Murdoch taking over the station. (Murdoch, despite his many flaws, is not stupid and realises that ballet is not appropriate for Saturday night prime-time, no matter how much David Frost might have wanted it to be.)
The third one is TV-am, ITV’s first breakfast contractor. This was, again, David Frost’s baby, and tragicomically he tried to do the exact same thing in 1981 as he did at LWT in 1968 and with the same result. TV-am tried to be more highbrow than the BBC, who correctly realised the obvious truth that people who have just woken up are simply not in the mood for hard journalism and are instead more interested in nice, friendly people saying nice, inconsequential things. The wheels started falling off almost immediately, with TV-am (which just to reiterate, was one of two breakfast television options at this point, and the only national ITV contractor) managing to receive viewing figures in the low thousands at points, amidst staff unrest, sackings and rampant technical difficulties. TV-am ended the same way for Frost as did LWT — he was ejected, for it to then be run by Greg Dyke and then (even more tragicomically) by a different Australian media mogul; both of whom, simply, just plain had more commercial sense than he did.
Frost’s obviously doomed attempt at a breakfast TV service is what has repeatedly come to mind for me when thinking about GB News, the equally obviously doomed right-wing news channel that launched last month in a blaze of mediocrity. This is not just because of the obvious parallels (technical difficulties, minimal viewing figures, staff being ejected and leaving) but because much like the idea of confronting the un-caffeinated with hard news on a channel that’s expected to be the “light” network, it’s just so fundamentally wrongheaded on a business and marketing level that it simply cannot succeed at what it is setting out to do. It’s just plainly a bad idea, and it doesn’t take much to figure this out.
The biggest issue is that GB News, despite its name, doesn’t offer rolling news. This failure of branding aside, it also means that it’s excluding the most obvious possible market for the channel — people who want news. It also, in a fact that was obvious well before it suddenly decided it supported cancel culture after all by effectively sacking Guto Harri for taking the knee, is avowedly ideological and slanted towards one side of the political spectrum. You can’t just have it on in the background in mixed company or in a hotel lobby the same way you could with the BBC News Channel or Sky News, because it’s neither neutral enough to be inoffensive background noise, nor “newsy” enough to provide a useful service. Those who actually want news are already very well-served by both domestic sources (BBC, Sky, to an extent ITV or C4) and international ones (CNBC, Fox, CNN International, EuroNews, and if you really want to push it, RT).
Therefore, logically, the only people left to be its audience are people who are not only right-wing, but on the hardcore “anti-woke” right wing, and also actively desire to have their prejudices pandered to instead of receiving actual news coverage. That’s not a big market. For sure, it exists, but it’s tiny, as has been evidenced by way of GB News’ viewing figures dipping so low that BARB often can’t even register them. It’s certainly not enough to sustain a 24/7 not-news channel, especially combined with the station’s advertisers dropping like flies as it turns out they don’t want to be seen to be advertising on an avowedly right-wing news outlet.
Having torched whatever reputation as a neutral channel it might have dreamt it had by getting all triggered by Guto Harri taking the knee and cancelling him, like a bunch of snowflakes, GB News followed this up by hiring Nigel Farage to present a nightly evening show, like The One Show for anti-maskers. Put simply, I don’t know what they think this does for them. Leaving aside Farage’s diminished fan-base as his limited reasons for prominence ebb away, it doesn’t speak to the core issue of GB News — who would actually want to watch this, and why? Those who want to hear the thoughts of Are Nige are not underserved — there’s plenty of Farage to go around — so what is the point of spending money on this shrinking market, particularly to put him on opposite Coronation Street and EastEnders?
This further raises the question of what Ofcom are going to do. So far the regulator has not issued any warnings to GB News, but whatever loophole the channel thinks it has found to get around broadcasting impartiality regulations is going to be stretched to breaking point by taking on a perennial candidate for the hard right as a commentator with his own show, not helped by the Harri incident clearly evidencing that, actually, they don’t give a thruppenny toss about representing a plurality of views at all. At some point the other shoe will drop, someone will say something even more boneheadedly inadvisable than has already been said and Ofcom will start to take an interest.
But frankly, even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, because the premise of the channel is just so fundamentally flawed that it’s going to die on its own anyway. I gave GB News a year when it first came on air for the simple reason that the commercial arguments for its existence do not stack up. A month has now passed and I think that may have been optimistic. When the channel’s big-money backers finally realise that you don’t need to run a TV channel nobody watches to clip right wing talking points for social media, and a few more presenters desert the channel and delete any mention of it from their CVs, the plug will be pulled and it’ll go the same way as every other pisspoor unwatched channel that drops out of the Sky EPG without anyone ever noticing its existence, and unlike Rediffusion, LWT and TV-am, it won’t be important or consequential enough for anyone to bother saving it or even caring.
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