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A British news channel showdown may be on after all, with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp revealing plans to launch a network called talkTV in 2022 and signing up Piers Morgan as its first outside big-name talking head.
The announcement on Thursday came days after the much-discussed GB News, which launched in June with the backing of the likes of Discovery as a right-leaning alternative to the likes of the BBC and ITV News, lost its chairman Andrew Neil, who was also a key on-air face, following debate about whether it was becoming too much of a Fox News clone and could struggle to maintain viewers and advertisers.
News Corp’s British arm News UK had said earlier this year that it wouldn’t launch a long-considered U.K. news network, because it wouldn’t be financially viable, but has now dramatically changed course.
“News UK is to launch a new channel, talkTV, in early 2022,” it said Thursday. “The channel will be streamed live and made widely available on all platforms including linear TV and OTT with content available across social media as well as News UK’s own broad inventory of websites and apps. Everyone in the U.K. will be able to access the channel, live or on-demand, either on their television or on any personal device.”
It added: “talkTV will offer a mix of programming from News UK’s stable of household brands. There will be proper hourly news bulletins, sports and entertainment shows as well as current affairs, debate, opinion and documentaries.”
Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News UK, said: “We are committed to providing choice for television and streaming viewers and bringing the best of our journalism to the screen. Taking advantage of modern technology, we can produce high-quality shows at low cost.”
Whatever talkTV looks like when it arrives, many believe Murdoch and Brooks will want it to perform better than GB News.
On its first full day, the GB News network — which battled numerous technical teething errors in its first few weeks — peaked with 2.2 million viewers. In July, reports mentioned a daily audience of slightly more than 1 million viewers, below Comcast-owned Sky News’ 2.5 million-plus. Audience figures then fell further, notoriously to zero at least twice on a day in mid-July according to ratings agency BARB after it faced a boycott when a host took a knee on-air in solidarity with the England soccer team. The host was suspended before permanently leaving.
Even the arrival of former Brexit Party boss Nigel Farage, a familiar face on British TV and known for his support of Donald Trump, did little to dampen spirits. The Guardian is now reporting that the network was looking to hire more of Farage’s former Brexit Party stablemates “in what appears to be a move to the right of the political spectrum.”
After his exit, Neil told the BBC he felt like “a minority of one” at the network. “More and more differences emerged between myself and the other senior managers and the board,” he said, adding that he quit the channel because he didn’t want to be part of a “British Fox News.” Asked about its early performance, he said it could not be called a “startling success.”
But poaching Morgan — who was hotly-tipped to be heading to GB News himself after he left ITV’s Good Morning Britain following an uproar over his comments on Meghan Markle’s mental health earlier this year — could be key to talkTV’s success. While he’s still a controversial figure who appears to thrive off social media spats with well-known figures (including Markle), his star power seems to also fit into talkTV and News Corp’s, along with Fox News Media’s, broader plans.
“Piers is the broadcaster every channel wants but is too afraid to hire,” said News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch. “Piers is a brilliant presenter, a talented journalist and says what people are thinking and feeling. He has many passionate fans around the world and we look forward to expanding his audience in the U.K., at Fox Nation, Sky News Australia, The Sun and the New York Post.”
Observers said having recognizable names from the outside in addition to known News Corp voices is part of a bet that talkTV can break through enough to make money.
“I think the fact that they have been umming and ahing about launching this channel, and had apparently recently decided that it wasn’t for them, is instructive as to how viable it could be,” Enders Analysis analyst Tom Harrington tells The Hollywood Reporter. “News is expensive and hard, and as GB News shows, the audience for an alternative viewpoint to the BBC, Sky, ITV etc is smaller than some think – basically it seems that more people like to read and talk about GB News than actually want to watch it.”
But Murdoch’s company may have one advantage. “There are obvious synergies for News UK, and opportunities to promote it across the print brands, and the talent onscreen could be attractive,” Harrington notes. “But it will be a challenge to stand out against better funded and established operations – other than by skewing to a particular political direction, which of course then alienates a section of the audience.”
How may Murdoch’s team think about the performance of GB News and what it means for talkTV? “News UK will think it can do a better job — very plausible — and will be able to cross-promote a lot better,” he said. “But as they will have to spend a lot more to have proper news bulletins, some news gathering etc, it will have to get a materially bigger viewership than GB News gets currently to have any shot at viability.”
British media focused some time on Friday on the future of news offerings in the country.
“What seems to have happened is that they’ve looked at culture war topics and how well they do online, looked at the success of (News Corp’s) talkRadio with its video content and gone, ‘GB News has shown that there’s something of a gap in the market for, for want of a better term, an anti-woke channel, and Piers Morgan is suddenly available, and if we put the two together, splash a bit of cash, we might actually have something that brings in the viewers’,” suggested Jim Waterson, The Guardian’s media editor, speaking on the BBC’s flagship Today news show on Radio 4. “And News UK, unlike GB News has shown (it) knows how to run things and how to get stuff done, how to get things on air and look good.”
Waterson pointed out that, unless there was a major crisis, the U.K.’s dedicated news channels — even the heavyweights such as BBC News and Sky News — did traditionally not have big audiences, meaning talkTV would have to find a unique angle.
“What talkTV might do is just go, ‘Piers Morgan every evening, every weeknight, will say something provocative and entertaining in a slick manner.’ The strangest thing with all of this is the fastest way to get a TV show, a book deal or a magazine deal at the moment is to say that you’re being banned by the mainstream media,” Waterson said. “It’s incredible how profitable cancel culture can be.”
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