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Is GB News an idea that’s already past its time?

By Andy Oakes, Publisher of New Digital Age

As GB News moves a month past its original launch date, is it time to ask if the concept of another 24-hour rolling TV news channel is already out of date?

The Andrew Neil-led project has backing of £60m from the likes of the US media company Discovery and Legatum and has announced a slew of editorial hires including heavyweights such as Tom Harwood and Dan Wooton. However, one less high profile hire caught my attention this week as Stephen Lepitak of Adweek broke the news that David Weeks was joining as Commercial Director.

Weeks, who has recently been working as a consultant for the Discovery Channel and cinema media buyer Pearl & Dean, started at the channel this week, heading up its commercial operations. He spent over a decade at Dennis Publishing, which owns The Week, and served as The Economist’s international advertising director for over 12 years, leaving in 2009.

Two things strike me here. Weeks, whilst undoubtedly a solid hire with a solid background in publishing is by no means a TV heavyweight. And wouldn’t a Commercial Director be one of your first hires? 

So did many of the top TV sales figures stay away from the role. And why?

The news that News UK will not be launching a competitor TV channel in the UK, after coming to the conclusion that it is not financially viable to launch a fully fledged rolling news channel in the style of Fox News, may provide some of the answers.

Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of his News UK company, told staff that the enormous cost of getting a television news channel on air meant it did not make business sense to push ahead.

She said the company would instead focus on reaching news audiences via shows on streaming platforms, adding: “While there is consumer demand for alternative news provision, the costs of running a rolling news channel are considerable, and it is our assessment that the payback for our shareholders wouldn’t be sufficient. We need to launch the right products for the digital age.”

That last line seems to be the salient point here. Is a TV channel that is already attracting campaigns from campaign groups aimed at deterring advertisiers going to be commercially viable? The FT has talked about the most precarious part of the GB News experiment being its business plan. Nobody has attempted to launch a news channel from scratch since 1989, when Sky News began broadcasting (also with Andrew Neil at the helm) and for the very good reason that it’s very hard to attract viewers and thus ad revenues.Sky News has operating losses of around £40m a year and attracts only a few hundred thousand viewers at peak hours.

And then there’s the age old TV vs online debate. The BBC, Sky,Channel4 and ITV have all spent large amounts of time and money looking to attract online audiences through their various platforms. We’ve seen news consumption rocket over the last year but in a post-pandemic world,will linear TV news retain a big enough slice of the pie to make GB News pay?

GB News would counter this by saying that its presenter-led style is very different from Sky and the rest and have constantly made the point that they will attract viewers who don’t feel represented by Sky or BBC. But also Andrew Neil has said that viewers expecting or hoping for a UK version of Fox will be disappointed.

So who is this channel for? 

If it’s not as bombastic as its editorial line up would seem to suggest then viewers won’t be attracted. And if it is, will advertisers feel comfortable in that environment? And then looking at the overall market, we see that TV adspend is down 11.8% year on year. ( WARC) anyway. 

Yes, you can point to the printed press and point out an audience for right-leaning media is already there but will it be enough for a long term sustained effort?

I very much doubt it.