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What you need to know about GB News

Populism may work in politics, but on television it’s a recipe for titters not profits
July 9, 2021

It is a sacred tenet for populists that they alone know what the people want. “Common-sense” Britain has, they insist, had enough of the “woke,” liberal nonsense peddled by an out-of-touch mainstream media which tells people what to think and what not to say. If they’re right, then there should be money in providing an alternative. Hence the idea for GB News, a new, Brexit-flavoured TV channel founded by telecoms executives Andrew Cole and Mark Schneider (both close to the right-wing American cable TV billionaire John Malone) and chaired by legendary ex-BBC journalist Andrew Neil.

Despite panic from hyperventilating liberals, it wasn’t exactly meant to be a British Fox News—Ofcom regulations preclude that—but hoped to serve “neglected” viewers beyond the supposed metropolitan bubble, airing arguments not broadcast elsewhere. The idea was to ditch conventional news bulletins for punchy debates likely to go viral on social media. There would be an upbeat patriotic twist—no more talking Britain’s post-Brexit prospects down—and dedicated “good news” slots. It launched on 13th June with a bang, although arguably not the one it wanted.

“Bold choice to film it on a Nokia 3310,” tweeted one viewer, as a nation peered into studios so under-lit it wasn’t easy to see the presenters. An anti-lockdown monologue from the former Sun journalist turned GB News presenter Dan Wootton, accusing “doomsday scientists” of terrifying the public, sparked 390 complaints to Ofcom (the regulator subsequently ruled out further action). The next few days brought technical glitches that repeatedly cut guests off, prank calls (one video caller flashed his bare bottom on air), and the socialite Lady Colin Campbell insisting that the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein be described not as a paedophile but an “ephebophile,” a historic term for someone attracted to older teenagers. It was cult viewing in Westminster, if only because everyone was agog for the next disaster, and its first night viewing figures of 164,000 trumped Sky News. But as the novelty faded, so did the ratings.

By the end of June, audiences had halved, Welsh language versions of the children’s cartoon Paw Patrol were beating GB News’s flagship breakfast show, and star presenter Andrew Neil announced he was taking some time off to “recharge his batteries.” So why, when culture wars play so well politically for Boris Johnson, aren’t they translating better onto television?

One explanation is that GB News, whose projected £25m running costs are a quarter of Sky’s, is simply trying to do things too cheaply. Another is that “the people” aren’t quite what populists think. GB News is lockdown-sceptic, yet polling shows this is the view of a noisy minority, not the masses. Some fans may have booed England footballers taking the knee, but only one in five Britons oppose Black Lives Matter and over a third don’t even know what “woke” means, according to pollsters Ipsos Mori. For all the sound and fury, culture wars are a niche pursuit. Britons would rather watch a boxset than a rant about Meghan Markle, which means the single biggest problem for GB News is getting noticed. 

Johnson successfully bolted a base-rallying culture war onto an already established Tory brand. But GB News more resembles the anti-lockdown actor Laurence Fox’s doomed run for London mayor; it’s a startup trying to break a market stacked against new entrants, where Netflix and YouTube are eating far bigger players for breakfast. (Rupert Murdoch’s News UK recently canned plans to start its own TV channel, concluding it wasn’t viable in this climate.) Even if, as some suspect, the real intention is to shift the political dial or put pressure on the BBC, that won’t happen unless viewers defect to GB News. The biggest threat to its survival isn’t brands like Ikea pulling advertising in protest at its perceived values—it thrives on that kind of controversy—but pulling ads because nobody’s actually watching.

There’s clearly a loyal—if limited—market for GB News, much as there is for the Daily Express, and perhaps its backers are politically committed enough to subsidise it indefinitely. But if it can’t scale up in the next few months, then a channel that lives by the mantra “go woke, go broke” could prove instead that populism isn’t quite as popular as it thought.