GB News won its battle with TalkTV – but both face uncertain future (2024)

In April 2021, the boss of the Murdoch-owned News UK, Rebekah Brooks, wrote in an internal letter that “it was not commercially viable” to launch a traditional news channel. Then, in April 2022, the company launched TalkTV.

As it closes and moves online on Monday, after a reported loss of at least £90m since it launched, those backing its main rival, GB News, may look on the TV channel’s demise with glee. But experts argue that the move marks a moment of reckoning for the broadcasting upstarts – and the future of both hangs in the balance.

Talk – TV has been dropped from its name for the move online – has promised “a refreshed lineup of no-nonsense presenters at the home of common sense” on YouTube, connected TVs and via the Talk website and app. But its spring schedule does not include Piers Morgan, who announced in February he was leaving his daily evening show to focus on the Piers Morgan Uncensored YouTube channel. It will also be without Vanessa Feltz, who will be replaced by Jeremy Kyle, or Sharon Osbourne, who has not been on screen since the end of September last year.

The move to digital only was billed as a bold leap into the future when it was revealed last month. “Two years ago, we would not have been brave enough to launch a channel without a linear presence,” said TalkTV’s president of broadcasting, Scott Taunton, in an email to staff.

For others, however, it marks a significant failure – a move from a slickly produced TV channel to something more akin to a radio station video feed.

The channel has struggled to attract enough viewers to ensure the advertising revenue needed to meet production costs. Some early primetime broadcasts received “zero viewers”, meaning its audience was too small to register on the official rating agency, Barb. By December 2023, TalkTV reached 2 million monthly viewers, behind GB News on 2.87 million, and far behind Sky News’s 8.5 million and the market leader, BBC News, at 11.4 million.

“TalkTV just bombed in audience terms,” said Steve Barnett, a professor of communications at the University of Westminster. The channel, based heavily around the outsized persona of Morgan, never matched GB News’s ability to influence opinion, he added.

“GB News has influenced debate way above the level of its actual audience figures partly because they do what Fox has successfully done in the States,” he said. “But TalkTV never quite managed to be so relentlessly controversial.”

Ofcom, which is tasked with ensuring broadcasters stick to rules around accuracy and “due impartiality”, had been “incredibly weak” in its dealing with GB News, he added. “I suspect that even Rebekah Brooks never quite understood how compliant Ofcom were going to be,” he said.

Last month, GB News was found to have repeatedly breached impartiality rules by paying Conservative MPs to serve as news presenters and interview the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, but faced no sanctions. It has broken broadcasting rules on 12 occasions in the past 18 months, with a further eight investigations in progress.

But even without TalkTV as a linear rival, the path towards financial sustainability for GB News looks challenging. By some measures it is on an upwards trajectory – yearly advertising revenues rose 44% from £2.9m to £4.2m, while overall turnover almost doubled to £6.7m. The channel reached a monthly average of 2.7 million people last year, according to figures fromBarb, up from 2.3 million in 2022. In November, it became the first television channel to launch a paid membership scheme.

Despite this, earlier this month its chief executive, Angelos Frangopoulos, told staff the broadcaster was looking to cut 40 roles in its first voluntary redundancy round – about 14% of its average headcount in the year to May 2023.

GB News won its battle with TalkTV – but both face uncertain future (1)

GB News, backed by the hedge fund boss Paul Marshall and the Dubai-based investment company Legatum, recorded operating losses of £42.4m in its most recent accounts, a 38% increase on the year before. That takes reported losses since its launch in June 2021 to £76m; last week, the former GB News chair Andrew Neil said GB News could never be profitable on its current path.

“Even a guy like Marshall won’t want to wear those losses every year.,” said the media analyst Alex DeGroote.

The losses also risk undermining the political influence of a broadcaster that has paid Conservative MPs, including high-profile presenters such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, more than £660,000 in appearance fees and salaries since it launched, he said. “At what point does the influence tail off because the world and his wife knows that you’re haemorrhaging cash?”

Locking itself to a larger media player – perhaps a “fairly conservative old newspaper business” – may be the most sensible path towards security, he added, noting Marshall’s decision on Friday to stand down from GB News’s board, perhaps to allay fears around plurality in advance of a likely bid to buy the Telegraph.

Meanwhile, its erstwhile rival is publicly bullish – News UK’s Brooks has consistently stated the company is planning to build for a future of “delivery of news and views … via streamed and online video”. For some media experts, however, TalkTV is now on a path of managed decline.

“I just wonder whether it’ll be kind of quietly packed away within the next couple of years and allowed to die a dignified death,” said Barnett.

GB News won its battle with TalkTV – but both face uncertain future (2024)
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