Will GB News turn out to just be a very expensive way to launch a YouTube channel?

17 Sep

This week’s papers bore the news that Andrew Neil is to abandon his role at GB News. His regular show, which aired just eight episodes before he took a break from the channel, will not be coming back, although he will continue to appear as a talking head.

This seems to mark the end of an internal power struggle over the direction of the station, which I examined back in July. Highbrow, relatively conventional right-wing TV journalism, of the sort Neil has offered in the past, is out. American-style ‘shock-jock’ programming is in.

It therefore seems likely that we will see more departures over the coming weeks and months. Several producers also left this week, and media reports suggest that other veteran journalists, including Simon McCoy and Kirsty Gallacher, are growing frustrated with the new direction. The departure in July of Neil McAndrew, the director of news and programming, also reportedly “dismayed some senior hires“.

The money

One commentator foresaw all of this. Writing all the way back in May, Matt Deegan made the following prediction:

“The resonating stuff will be all the right-wing malarkey and six months in they’ll have a mini re-launch and it’ll be all blowhards, all the time. The BBC imports will be moved to the edges. Andrew Neil will start to be a bit uncomfortable with the company he’s keeping and will end up doing a weekly show as he’ll say he needs to spend more time with his business interests and that this was always the plan.”

According to Deegan, there is a straightforward commercial reason for leaning in to the Nigel Farage-type content: pushing the channel’s most committed supporters into a £5-per-month subscription model. This was first reported by the Financial Times, which saw a pitch document which aimed to have a fifth of GB News’ fifth-year revenue of £40 million coming from 134,000 paying subscribers. However, there is no sign of this paid-for service yet.

But it does dovetail with comments from insiders about the difficulty of competing with the major channels, “which chronicle news and have superior production budgets”.

Leaning into the Fox-style content thus serves multiple purposes: keeping production costs down whilst generating good social media engagement and catering to GB News’ relatively narrow viewer base – and, perhaps, converting as many of them as possible into paying subscribers of one sort or another.

It may also simply be that the money wasn’t available to do what several sources suggested to me that the channel do back in July, namely have a proper shutdown, redesign the set, and try and relaunch as a proper news channel.

That would have been very capital intensive, and with a leaner model built into the pitch made to GB News’ original investors the cash may simply not have been there. Nor might it have seemed wise to try, given that Rupert Murdoch, with all the resources of News Corporation at his disposal and first-hand experience operating Fox News, couldn’t get his own attempt to launch a British TV station off the ground.

The future

However, all this does leave open the question of what future GB News has as an actual TV station. If it isn’t going to invest in the substantial crews and package-production that a full news channel requires, and especially if it sidelines or loses more traditional journalists from its presenting line-up, what is going to distinguish it from successful but much lower-budget right-wing commentary offerings such as TalkRADIO?

This is especially significant since Rupert Murdoch is reportedly teeing up another crack at a right-wing TV station – and the publicity seems to be aimed squarely at GB News. According to the Press Gazette, ‘TalkTV’ will “will feature “proper” hourly news bulletins, sports and entertainment shows as well as current affairs, debate, opinion and documentaries, News UK said.” In other words, exactly the sort of broad-spectrum offer some of GB News’ backers expected.

TalkTV may backfire. Murdoch’s list bid at such a channel eventually boiled down to what the FT describes as “a few low-budget chat shows, streamed online”, and these are apparently nested under the brands of its newspaper and radio offerings. But News UK is a big player with lots of experience getting this sort of project right, and this play suggests they both think there is a market for such a station and that GB News isn’t catering to it.

If veterans such as Neil do end up getting replaced by right-wing YouTube personalities such as Mahyar Tousi, then even without the competition GB News may end up being a very expensive, old-media way to launch what turns out to be quite a conventional new-media product – and one which, unlike the promise of a proper centre-right TV station, already exists in the UK market.

It is perhaps significant that it is these new-media angles that Tim Montgomerie highlighted in his column yesterday: “the station’s YouTube videos are beginning to go gangbusters”, and “it is already building a considerable following within ‘our big and small ‘C’ conservative family’”.

This may be true, but a national television news network can’t content itself with an audience comprising “fellow pundits, a handful of MPs, a few think tank folk, readers of this wonderful site and assorted friends from home in Salisbury”. And it isn’t obvious that a specialised product for active conservatives justifies the effort and expense of being run as if it were a national television news network.

The arts bailout: a reminder not to underestimate Dowden

6 Jul

In recent weeks, it’s fair to say that Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, hasn’t been particularly popular with the arts sector. After the industry was badly affected by the Coronavirus crisis and the mass closures of theatres, cinemas and the rest, many accused him of not doing enough.

Indeed, when he announced a five-stage roadmap to help businesses recover, people took this as evidence of a man who’s all talk and no action. “If you and your government have no desire to invest in and save theatre, then you should at least announce that decision as soon as possible”, posted one individual on Twitter, very much encompassing the general attitude.

With that being said, yesterday the culture secretary forced everyone to reconsider their perceptions of him after he managed to negotiate £1.57 million in funding for the industry. As The Times put it: “The phrase ‘from zero to hero’ may be overused, but what better words describe Oliver Dowden today?” It was an achievement that will not only transform the future of the arts sector, but that of Dowden within the political sphere, who is experiencing his first real arrival on the public stage – the same way Rishi Sunak did when appointed Chancellor.

Dowden’s announcement speaks, first, of his ability as a PR man. Despite the fact that Sunak is announcing a series of measures on Wednesday – including stamp duty scrapped for first-time buyers and an investment in green jobs – the culture secretary managed to get his own statement a centre stage slot over the weekend.

The announcement is not only impressive in its pledges – which includes £120 million capital infrastructure and for heritage construction projects in England, among others – but the list of illustrious names who’ve added their support to it, such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Simon Rattle and Alex Beard, the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House.

There’s also the fact, of course, that Dowden negotiated such an enormous bailout in the first place. It indicates that he has great influence in Downing Street, which he’s been developing for years, having started out as a specialist adviser and as David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff. Now the political networking is paying off.

Although the package is not perfect – there have been complaints about whether it can support smaller venues and freelancers – it has received an overwhelmingly positive response. It is a real vindication that we have been listened to“, Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Young Vic, told Times Radio; Sir Nicholas Hytner, once Artistic Director of the National Theatre, said it was a better plan than anyone expected.

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, Dowden has pledged to sort out an investment for the arts – even if no one believed him – so the fact that he has not so much succeeded, but exceeded all expectations, bodes well for his future in the party – though not perhaps for the BBC, which he has previously argued needs an ideological shake-up. And, as Sunday’s news shows, Dowden is a man who means business.