Will GB News – the new television channel launching today – provide the antidote to the BBC’s woke propaganda, as its founders contend? Or will it prove, as some critics fear, the final Americanisation of UK news, emboldening the reactionary right? Or both? And will anyone watch it? Around 6,500 hours a year of “original news, opinion and debate” are planned: programmes range from a primetime news and interview programme with GB News and Spectator chair Andrew Neil, called Andrew Neil, to cultural commentator Andrew Doyle’s Free Speech Nation, “a fearless filleting of the country’s thorniest debates.”
On paper, GB News is an anachronism. It’s anchor-driven television, available for free, funded by ads. It’s hard not to question this model’s commercial prospects, particularly when it is compared to News UK TV, which was a new, Murdoch-owned rolling news service that was canned earlier this year. It looked, in lots of ways, less ambitious than GB News. It would have benefited from News UK’s existing resources: its journalists, its general infrastructure and its cross-promotion across Murdoch’s papers and radio stations. “That combination of advantages would have made you think that in purely commercial terms, the News UK offer was much lower risk than GB News,” says Patrick Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School.
But, in a statement, News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks explained that while there was demand for “alternative news provision”, the costs of running a rolling news channel “considerable” and, as a result, the project was not commercially viable. “We need to launch the right products for the digital age,” Brooks concluded.
This digital element is probably less dramatic than Brooks is suggesting. The idea that television news is dead has been bandied around for a while – in 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, head of the MIT Media Lab, claimed that the television industry would disappear by the early millennium – and tends to focus on innovation rather than technology-in-use. People still watch television news; they watch other forms of news, too. “People exaggerate the extent and speed of these changes enormously,” says Barwise. “If it was as clear cut as she’s implying, then why were they looking at it in the first place? So these are clearly fairly finely judged, finely balanced judgments with a great deal of uncertainty.”
Nevertheless, this trend is directionally true, and, as Alex Barker points out, most news channels in Europe lose money or are state-supported. Sky News, for instance, the last new channel launched in the UK, operates at an annual loss of around £40 million. At the very least, Murdoch’s decision may be indicative of the motivations behind GB News. “It reinforces my view that GB News is a political project, not a commercial one,” says Barwise.
Fox is another misleading comparison, both commercially and politically. The economics are different, for one. GB News has emphasised a lean model: it aims to keep its annual running costs to just £25m, with budget directed primarily at the salaries of star anchors. Fox operates a similarly slim model, but crucially, as James O’Malley points out, it has recourse to sponsorship deals and cable fees, which GB News will not.
As for the political angle, if Ofcom does its job, Fox’s level of extreme partisanship isn’t going to fly in the UK. GB News’s lineup highlights this – it balances more extreme personalities, like The Sun’s Dan Wootton, with relatively reserved anchors like the BBC’s Simon McCoy. Consider how different in tone Sky and Fox News are, despite Murdoch owning both. And remember that Fox News actually had a UK channel, broadcast in Britain, on Sky, until 2017, which got in trouble with Ofcom over its coverage of Trump. It was eventually taken off air due to poor ratings.