James Heale

Changing channels: the new war for political broadcasting

Changing channels: the new war for political broadcasting
Vianney Le Caer/Piers Morgan Uncensored/Shutterstock
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It’s hard to step outside nowadays without being confronted with a massive picture of Piers Morgan. In the adverts for his new TalkTV show he can be seen crushing the House of Commons in his hands or pointing to an address for the channel’s complaints department. ‘Love him or hate him,’ the adverts declare, ‘you won’t want to miss him.’ Actually, it seems, people don’t mind if they do. At the last count, barely 40,000 tuned in.

In contrast, Morgan’s final appearance on Good Morning Britain drew almost two million viewers. So what’s going on? One answer is that TalkTV, like any new channel, will take a while to establish itself. But the other point is that Piers Morgan Uncensored is vying with lots of other big-name chat-show presenters across a variety of platforms for a limited amount of public attention.

Buses, trains, roadside billboards and newspapers carry pictures of new shows for star broadcasters. A 30ft picture of Andrew Marr proclaims that ‘he’s got his voice back’ via LBC radio – which is pushing its breakfast show man, Nick Ferrari, just as hard. And Andrew Neil is back, his old BBC1 show reincarnated on Channel 4 on Sunday evenings with almost 400,000 viewers. American--style programming that promotes individuals over institutions – like Jon Stewart or Jimmy Kimmel – seems to be coming to Britain.

It was about this time last year that GB News first appeared on our TV screens. Neil was its front man, but his show lasted for just a fortnight before he took a summer break and didn’t come back. He said later that his vision for the broadcaster was at odds with what he saw as a ‘British Fox News’ intent on waging a culture war. But GB News now seems to be finding its feet with a monthly audience of more than two million, regularly overtaking Sky News. GB News has also launched as a radio station and chalked up 240,000 weekly listeners.

For its part, LBC is gunning for BBC listeners. LBC has snapped up Eddie Mair (ex-Radio 4), Shelagh Fogarty (ex-Radio 5), Andrew Marr, Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel. ‘But it’s for PR, not for audience,’ says one BBC figure. ‘Global Media [LBC’s owner] is Europe’s largest independent radio company so it wants to come and have a go at us. It’s natural.’ But LBC is winning audience numbers too: 3.5 million a week, against ten million for Radio 4. Scheduling the new Andrew Marr show in the 6 p.m. slot is a clear attempt to lure Radio 4 listeners.

Overall, the traditional Radio 4 audience is straying in record numbers, which is why commercial radio has overtaken the BBC in audience figures. Global Media wants more, and is poaching BBC presenters, who are reasonably affordable. When Tony Hall was BBC director-general, he said that salaries for newsmen should be kept low because there is no competitive market. Britain’s roadside billboards suggest this is changing.

Might British television be ready for the shake-up that Fox News once gave America? Of the 50 most-watched television shows here, every single one is from the BBC, ITV or Channel 4. Surely there is room for more competition? Rebekah Brooks, who runs Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, has long been sceptical about the costs involved. She told staff in an email last year that ‘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’.

Murdoch persuaded her to think again. He launched Times Radio two years ago and has a weekly reach of about 700,000. ‘We’re happy,’ insists one of the Times Radio founders. ‘It’s a tool to market the Times; radio is cheap and it’s worth the money.’ It’s perhaps more of a tool to retain readers: about two-thirds of Times Radio listeners already subscribe to the newspaper.

TalkTV was finally launched by News UK to much fanfare last month, bolting a trio of new shows on to the existing Talk-Radio station . Morgan, Sharon Osbourne and the former Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn are the stars around which it is based. The early consensus of the pundits is that it is not a success: as initial interest has faded, there’s been a corresponding drop-off in linear TV ratings. While executives publicly point to better worldwide online figures, privately some fear for the network’s future.

This is perhaps hardly surprising considering its inauspicious start. Despite News UK’s riches and a flawless technical launch, insiders hint at a dysfunctional set-up characterised by endless meetings, canned shows and uncertainty about what TalkTV is for. Murdoch is said to be relaxed, seeing the channel as a long-term project.

A key point of internal contention concerns TalkTV’s own identity. Is it catering to the tastes of Sun or Times readers? Both papers run near-daily adverts promoting the same channel. Most of TalkTV’s advertising has been built around Morgan, who is rumoured to be on a £50 million three-year deal. Of 65 TalkTV adverts which ran in the Murdoch press over five weeks, 59 were for Morgan. ‘People are going to tune in and be really surprised, not just by our balance and our total lack of right-wingery,’ says Newton Dunn.

The big gamble of both GB News and TalkTV is on there being a future for a traditional TV station, rather than a YouTube channel or other online platform. The trends for younger age groups watching broadcast TV don’t present many reasons to be optimistic. Ten years ago, people aged 16 to 24 spent almost three hours a day watching traditional TV. Now it’s barely an hour.

Crucially, both channels have made the decision to focus on opinion and debate, rather than news and analysis. This approach is cheaper, but it also feels more combative: more American. Could television in Britain be about to change? Already the culture secretary Nadine Dorries has decided to privatise Channel 4, with the BBC licence fee likely to be abolished in 2027 – if the Tories are still in power. A whole world of possibilities might yet be opened up.

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