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February 17, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 11:01am

How GB News is bouncing back after launch wobbles and exit of Andrew Neil

By Charlotte Tobitt

With a new editorial director, new breakfast show, DAB radio launch and addition of the National Anthem to the start of each day, the GB News is boasting a growing audience after a bumpy end to 2021.

The channel launched in June last year but, with millions of eyes watching, was rocked by technical difficulties, the sudden departure of star presenter Andrew Neil and later director of programming John McAndrew, widespread reports of an advertising boycott, and the firing of presenter Guto Harri for taking the knee live on air.

Now, however, it is boosting job numbers and celebrating overtaking rival opinion-led broadcaster LBC on Youtube. Press Gazette understands that GB News is now employing almost 200 people, up from 140 at launch.

[Read more: TalkTV launch ‘sincerely flatters’ GB News says chairman Alan McCormick]

ITV veteran Eamonn Holmes and Isabel Webster (pictured), who first worked together on Sky News’s Sunrise, have taken over the breakfast show from ex-BBC News presenter Simon McCoy who left for personal reasons. Other well-known presenters include ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage, ex-Sun showbiz editor Dan Wootton, and fellow Sunrise alumnus Stephen Dixon.

Why is GB News’ audience growing?

Editorial director Mick Booker, who joined GB News on 3 January from editing the Sunday Express and a total of 21 years on tabloid newspapers, told Press Gazette it had been a “very good, strong start to the year” with Holmes and Webster “showing a lot of people what we’re about”.

“I think a lot of people made up their mind of what GB News was in the first few months, or what they thought it was without actually looking at it, but now we’ve got the likes of Eamonn and Isabel at the start of the day I think that changes certain people’s perceptions and it opens their minds to looking at the rest of the channel and realising there’s something there for everyone,” he said.

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“Certain other channels have a bit more gloom and doom on them in the morning, but we’re trying to be a brighter presence – you get all your news, but you also get a bit of brightness as well,” Booker said, adding that Holmes and Webster “will be popular with a lot of people who don’t want to be lectured to in the morning”.

Booker told Press Gazette he wants to use his newspaper experience to help ensure GB News has its own “easily identifiable values and spirit as a  newspaper has”.

In October, before Booker’s appointment, GB News introduced regular news bulletins after listening to feedback from viewers. Now, Booker said, it is planning to blend more breaking news into its shows too.

‘I just want to get bigger and bigger’

GB News continues to reach around 2m people each month according to Barb (the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board). In the four weeks to 2 January (before Holmes and Webster’s arrival) the channel was watched by 2.2m people for an average of 19 seconds per day.

This compares to 15.9m for the BBC News Channel and 10.9m for Sky News, with average daily viewing of three minutes and one minute 39 seconds respectively.

GB News was watched by 3.7m people in its first month and at its lowest Barb put it on 1.7m in the four weeks to 31 October.

Asked about audience growth strategy, Booker said: "As far as I'm concerned coming into this, I just want to get bigger and bigger. The sky's the limit I think and that's what we're aiming for... we offer something different and that's what we're going to do, just keep growing all of the business - but there's going to be no resting on any laurels, I can tell you that."

Indeed, Booker believes GB News can become "Britain's news channel" by using its journalists based across the nation.

"We need to be the channel that people can come to and tell their stories and be accessible," he said. "Some of the other news channels these days can sometimes get obsessed with Westminster and places like that, whereas I think we need to be everywhere and hearing everyone's voices. So that's what I'm going to try and do over the next - as long as I've got."

GB News online audience

Despite the continuing challenge of growing linear TV viewership, GB News's digital reach is still rising in terms of both followers and engagement. At the start of February it claimed to have had 2.9bn impressions across web and social since launch.

Head of digital and presenter Rebecca Hutson told Press Gazette she had expected the initial burst of online audience growth to plateau but, in fact, it has kept going up - especially on video-led platforms such as TikTok, YouTube and Facebook.

Speaking on 26 January, Hutson said: "December was our biggest month and January was already bigger than December in terms of everything from views to web traffic to app downloads. So really the pressure is on me now to kind of maintain this trajectory for as long as possible."

As a result, Hutson revealed the digital team, including news editors and reporters generating their own news lines, is growing from 15 to 21 - with more resource for recruitment likely if the audience trends continue. This will be part of GB News's rise from a total of 140 jobs at launch to almost 200.

Hutson said GB News's approach across digital has switched from "start-up mode, which was like throw everything at the wall and see what sticks and see what works" to being "a lot more selective and data driven on what we're doing and also more creative".

Part of this is learning what works best on each platform, and "how we can reach new audiences without alienating or disappointing the existing ones", she said.

'Conscious effort not to clip gotcha moments'

So, what works for GB News on each platform? On Twitter, Hutson said, "short, sharp... solid" news lines.

"Because we are looking at stories in the regions - we've seen what's happened to regional journalism over the last two decades, titles closing and centralising of offices and stuff, and I really do believe that we are mopping up so many of those stories and so that performs so brilliantly on Twitter."

The channel's debates and discussions do best on Facebook and YouTube, Hutson said. In January GB News overtook LBC on YouTube and is now on 397,000 subscribers compared to its rival, which launched on the platform in 2008, which is on 361,000.

"We've made a really conscious effort not to just clip up tiny out of context moments from our guests or our presenters for that gotcha moment that will trend on Twitter especially, we're really deliberately avoiding that," Hutson said.

"Instead, those longer debates and discussions live and thrive on YouTube and Facebook because if you want to watch a discussion about whether Boris should resign or not, you want to hear all the nuances and all the debate and you want to hear all the opinions and that behaviour lends itself... on YouTube and Facebook especially."

Meanwhile, on TikTok GB News has more followers (184,000) than the likes of Sky News (86,000), ITV News (71,000), CNN (42,000) and BBC News, which has decided it does not have the resources to use TikTok in a way that suits its brand.

[Read more: Why Sky News, unlike the BBC, is embracing TikTok and Snapchat]

Hutson said it "still astounds" her that TikTok, where more than half of users are believed to be under 30, is one of GB News's biggest platforms. She said it is the "punchy monologues" from some of the channel's younger talent, such as ex-Talkradio presenter Patrick Christys, that work best.

"It's punchy, it's controversial sometimes," she said. "We definitely don't shy away from any topic, and that just seems to resonate really well... being confronted with a really strong opinion when you're in that kind of mindset to be entertained."

Several of its most-watched TikTok videos recently have been monologues about the trucker protest against compulsory Covid-19 vaccines in Ottawa, Canada, for example Christys saying the response of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's shows he is "authoritarian".

@gbnews

Patrick says #liberal leaders like #Biden and #trudeau are actually #authoritarian and attacks on #canada #truckers prove it #trucks #trucker #uk

♬ Fadeaway - Official Sound Studio

Hutson said many news brands had written off TikTok as an app for young people, or too entertainment-focused, but noted it was the most downloaded app in 2020 and 2021 - and said its relative youth compared to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter meant GB News could grow with it. "As a platform, it matures and you can get more insights and more effective monetisation and all that stuff."

'Our currency isn't rage'

Hutson joked it had been an "exhausting exercise" to trend on Twitter every day since GB News launched, but said the online numbers prove the brand is building a loyal audience - rather than simply attracting attention from haters.

"The billions and billions of impressions that we generate each month, cannot be from rage alone - angry people don't come back day in, day out, on the hour to check in on what we're doing," Hutson said.

"When you look at the sentiment beneath a lot of the clips, especially on Facebook and YouTube which are far more core in terms of demographic and audience, they are people having really civilised and informed debate about the issues that have been discussed in the content of the video or the article.

"Of course, there's always going to be a few blue ticks on Twitter who want to score some points by being sneery. But our currency isn't rage because... people aren't angry for seven months on end. They just aren't. I think this is a loyal audience, who appreciate [us], whose needs we meet, and who didn't feel like they were being reflected or heard in the existing landscape. I don't think that hate as a currency lasts that long."

Hutson said GB News's average engagement rate on Twitter was 12.8% while its average viewing duration on Youtube was 7.47 minutes.

Hutson told Press Gazette in July that GB News was benchmarking its initial online success against News UK's TalkRadio, which was relaunched in 2016, and Times Radio, which launched in 2020.

Now having overtaken them both across the board, as well as LBC on YouTube, Hutson is setting her sights higher - and overseas.

Hutson said she was eyeing up the likes of Sky News, ITV News and Channel 4 News but was also looking to broadcasters such as MSNBC and Sky News Australia in the US and Australia.

"We see engagement from those countries and I think that's because there are common threads of issues, whether it's Covid or immigration or  identity politics that really arouse some kind of debate and discussion in those territories as well," she said.

'What we're doing is popular'

But Hutson added traditional broadcasters are not the only competition, pointing to the New Statesman's podcasts and newsletters as an example. "It's keeping an eye on what the whole landscape is doing really and just slowly crossing them off," she said.

Booker said rivals are already imitating elements of GB News's formats, with Sky News launching weekly discussion programme The Great Debate hosted by Trevor Phillips, the BBC News Channel creating its own discussion-based news programme Context hosted by Christian Fraser, and the upcoming arrival of Rupert Murdoch's TalkTV with star presenter Piers Morgan.

"I think they're looking at us, seeing what we're doing and realising there's a big audience there to have and what we're doing is popular," Booker said.

"It's always flattering when people start copying you, but I've always thought you just get on with what you do really and let others get on with their business... and if anyone wants to copy us - well, it's up to them."

Picture: PA Wire/GB News

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