Good news or bad news for new news channels?

During the bank holiday weekend there have been several well sourced stories suggesting that two brand new news channels are set to launch in the coming year to tackle the supposed domination of the BBC News Channel and Sky News.

The Guardian’s media editor, Jim Waterson, suggests that one is being planned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, another by a group branded GB News, which is being advised by Sir Robbie Gibb, a former BBC executive and advisor to Theresa May.

As someone who used to run a rolling TV news station, the late and somewhat lamented ITV News Channel, I have my doubts that these can be successful, at least as traditional news channels.

Who had the biggest news wall? I think we know

 

There are many challenges to launching a new TV news service, as can be seen by the fact the NBC Sky World News channel failed to make it to air, but lets start with the most basic.

While News UK is denying that their new service will be Fox News UK, it is clear both companies like the idea of a hot-topic led news channel disrupting TV news, as LBC has done with speech radio.

And that quickly leads you to look at Fox News – the most successful example of this kind of programming.

Fox News makes serious money. Fox Corp turned over $2.75B in 2019, around 90% of its revenues coming from Fox News and its subsidiaries.

 

Why wouldn’t News UK want to replicate its success here?

But the size of the market here is the issue. While Hannity can boast audiences running into millions, the UK audience for TV news channels is tiny. When I was at ITV News (admittedly a while ago now) we estimated that there were around 100,000 people watching rolling news at any single time. That was for the BBC, Sky and ITV combined.

Of course, in the event of a big story the audience numbers would shoot upwards. But the increases were never sustained. And that meant it was only ever organisations that were prepared to lose money who could stay in the market. Sky could afford to use its news channel as a loss leader, ITV could not.

Even if you assume that these prospective news channels will have bare-bones newsgathering, done in the cheapest way possible, it will still be very hard to break even, let alone make huge profits, without changing the whole TV news market.

That’s not to say it is impossible, just difficult. It brings to mind the rash promises made by the local TV news companies when Jeremy Hunt tried to set-up a new generation of TV news suppliers. They too looked to the United States and saw a profitable model.

The other baseline issue that will need to be addressed is Ofcom regulation. To get a TV broadcasting licence, you need to promise Ofcom that you will deliver certain things – x number of hours of news, and so forth. And you have to agree to certain restrictions, the key one being “due impartiality”.

A lot gets made of the concept of impartiality but a fair amount of it is in the eye of the beholder.

The BBC may take one approach, LBC or TalkRadio another.

LBC, for example, can run (or at least, used to run) programmes fronted by Nigel Farage because it can point to the station’s inhouse liberal, James O’Brien, as evidence it includes, and treats fairly, other viewpoints.

Nigel Farage in full flow before getting canned

It is not impossible for a TV company to take a similar approach. And remember that Fox News has been on a partisan journey too. It wasn’t that long ago that Sean Hannity had to have a balancing liberal presenter in Alan Colmes.

But in this day and age, why bother with a broadcast licence at all? Enough of us now own smart TVs that the idea of having a streaming service delivered entirely through a subscription app has merit.

That seems to be the business model News Corp are toying with. Ofcom does in theory regulate on-demand programmes, which might be taken to be television-like. But no-one has done this for news before. Break new ground and you get a big say in the future terms of trade.

To me, then, it seems that it is unlikely that a new TV news channel, as we currently envision them, can become an immediate big financial success. The overheads are too high and the audience is too small.

But could a new entrant make a success of a SVOD news-based chatshow channel, with low overheads and little oversight from the regulator? That seems to me to be a new proposition that might have a potential future. And that seems to be what News UK is thinking too.

 

BBC News cuts – the gap between perception and reality

How do you do more with less?

That’s the conundrum the BBC News cuts announced today are trying to solve.

I’m not going to go into which posts are closing and whether that’s right or not – there’s still a lot of detail to come out.

But I would just flag up a couple of things.

Firstly the difference between the rhetoric and the reality. James Harding says he couldn’t find any fat to cut, and then demonstrates how much fat there is to cut. Back office savings are being implemented throughout this process – for example the closer integration of BBC World and BBC News Channel. A no brainer.

The other issue which leaps out is Panorama cutting staff reporters. On paper this looks like a sensible, modern move. Jim Gray is clearly thinking about the Dispatches model, where content is commissioned from independents, or in this case freelances, rather than having expensive staff sat around producing very little.

That sounds, and is, sensible.

But it will play appallingly. “BBC cuts Panorama” is the headline that its legion of press officers will now have to firefight tomorrow, and it’s the underlying perception it will now have to fight in the years until the next licence fee renewal.

That’s a tough sell when you’re expanding as yet unproven digital projects – look at this reaction in the New Statesman.

And there’s still the unresolved issue of cutting services licence fee payers use to support the expanding costs of the World Service, which they don’t. The BBC Trust also chose today to fire a warning shot on the closure of BBC3, pointing out the problems of reaching young, ethnically diverse audiences.

Broadly I approve of the strategy on display here. But when pushing for radical change, it wouldn’t do James any harm to look at bit more supportive of some of the best elements of the BBC’s legacy and to look as though he’s safeguarding the interests of licence fee payers.