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September 23, 2021updated 07 Nov 2023 5:49am

TalkTV versus GB News: Will Murdoch and Morgan beat Nigel Farage and co?

By Freddy Mayhew

Rupert Murdoch turned 90 this year, but far from taking it easy he’s launching a new TV channel.

TalkTV will air in the UK from early 2022, both as a linear and on-demand channel, offering “proper hourly news bulletins, sports and entertainment shows… current affairs, debate, opinion and documentaries”.

The channel has made its first big hire in Piers Morgan, who quit ITV’s GMB six months ago, and News UK (News Corp’s UK subsidiary) has invested in new TV studios at its London Bridge HQ.

It’s a turnaround for Murdoch who nixed the idea of launching a TV channel earlier this year, preferring instead to only offer a streaming service.

The media mogul’s change of mind has come as GB News is going through something of an identity crisis after chairman and face of the channel Andrew Neil stepped down, following news director John McAndrew.

Neil cited “differences” with senior management over the direction of the channel for his departure, having been off the air over the summer.

It’s been plain for all to see that GB News has been plagued by technical issues since its launch in June and it recently underwent major changes in its presenting line-up to try to reinvigorate its offering. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, hired after  launch, is now a main fixture.

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[Read more: GB News in-depth briefing – Everything you need to know]

These very public shortcomings have given TalkTV “second mover advantage” in the market, according to Rob Keery of marketing agency AIP.

“GB News’s brand halo and credibility feel tarnished after a catalogue of early missteps and the drawn-out departure of their figurehead Andrew Neil. The News UK machine will have been watching closely, and learning how not to do it.”

Murdoch’s News UK will also be able to draw on something GB News does not have: an “established ecosystem” of newsbrands with which it is able to “align closely and receive reliable support”, says Keery.

News UK owns The Sun and Times news titles, including Times Radio, as well as radio and streaming services Talkradio, Talksport and Virgin Radio which fall under subsidiary Wireless Group.

Keery says GB News “is likely to suffer by comparison” following the launch of TalkTV, but “having two challenger brands disrupting the broadcast media space simultaneously will stimulate the market.

“So even if GB News is pushed into second place in terms of audience share for this older, right-leaning, more financially secure demographic it might still benefit from a larger overall audience.”

[Read more: Murdoch UK news channel launch puts GB News buyout on the cards (comment)]

Murdoch UK broadcasting timeline

February 1989 – Launch of Sky and Sky News

March 2009 – Launch of Sun Talk radio station (it closes 18 months later)

September 2016 – News UK buys Wireless Group (including Talksport, Talkradio, Virgin Radio)

September 2018 – Murdoch sells his 39% stake in Sky to Comcast for £17bn

June 2020 – Launch of Times Radio

2021 – Talkradio TV soft launch

TBC 2022 – Launch of TalkTV

TalkTV isn’t Murdoch’s first venture into television news. He launched Sky in 1989, the UK’s first satellite TV service offering four free-to-air channels including Sky News, which was Europe’s first rolling news channel at the time (the BBC News channel didn’t arrive until 1997).

In 2018 Murdoch lost out on a bid to take full control of Sky – he already owned 39% of it – with US broadcast giant Comcast winning at auction with a £30bn offer.

It seemed like it might have marked the end of Murdoch’s TV interests in the UK – although he still owns Fox News in the US and Sky News Australia – with News UK turning its focus to radio instead.

News UK bought Wireless Group in a £220m deal in September 2016 that included stations Talksport – the main prize at the time – and Talkradio, which had launched in March that year.

Its audiences were said to complement Sun readers, with News UK having previously launched Sun Talk radio station online in 2009 which aired for 18 months before closing.

Wireless Group’s former chief operating officer Scott Taunton is heading up the launch of TalkTV in his new role as chief exec of News UK Broadcasting.

Talkradio has grown over the past few years and is now available as a live video streaming service online, on apps and on Youtube, where it has 275,000 subscribers, dubbed TalkradioTV. Clips of the exchanges are also available on Youtube and are widely shared on social media.

Separately from Wireless Group, but still part of the News UK stable, Times Radio launched in June this year.

Broadcasting radio online “enormously increases your opportunity in reaching people because of course you become search engine friendly,” says media analyst Doug McCabe of Enders Analysis.

“And you cleverly deploy snippets and so on through social media and search engines. If your entire model is just linear broadcast it’s very difficult to do that in the same way or with anything like the same impact.”

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Commercial viability and taking on GB News

News UK originally said launching a linear TV station would not be “commercially viable” given the “considerable” costs of running it.

But Keery says: “TV has also never been more accessible than it is now thanks to technology advances.” Chiefly a move towards programmatic advertising that has opened TV up to companies with lower budgets.

“In spite of the pandemic there were over 850 advertisers that spent £50k or less on TV in 2020 – these sorts of budgets would have been unheard of in the past,” says Keery. “It means that brands who wouldn’t have dreamed of advertising on TV can suddenly level up and find their audience on the biggest screen in the house for minimal outlay.”

News UK’s move into TV has the feel of a “true owner’s moment”, says McCabe, rather than the result of “laborious executive decisions”.

“It does feel like it comes from [Murdoch] and I think it’s consistent as well with some of the things that [News UK] has been doing as an organisation. which I think have also been driven by him…

“It’s innovative, it’s thinking about different ways of reaching audiences, it’s thinking about what happens after the newspaper era. Is it just online newspapers, or are you almost required to start doing different things and reaching audiences in different ways?”

With GB News already broadcasting, what can TalkTV bring that’s new and might interest brands keen to advertise with it?

McCabe says TalkTV “starts from a much stronger position than GB news” and “is part of a much bigger portfolio [and is] multi territory, whereas GB News is a single territory and it’s a standalone business – that makes the GB News proposition much harder to sustain”.

Keery says TalkTV willgive brands who hesitated to direct ad spend towards GB News a safer home for their ads to appear”.

“In the end GB News’ lack of appeal to brands has been less about brand safety than bad value for money,” he says. “Who wants to risk their ad budget on a channel that sometimes gets zero viewers? Or be associated with a channel with such a poor reputation for quality production values and technical competence?”

He advises brands “wondering at this stage whether TalkTV will be a safe home for their campaigns” to enter into the process “consciously”, with the ad boycott by some brands of GB News revealing that some “simply did not know where their ads were going”.

Can TalkTV make a success of itself?

While success for TalkTV will still be measured in ad revenue and audience, it also needs to make an impact and have an influence.

Keery says: “There are two ways to look at success for TalkTV. The first is based on viewing numbers. GB News didn’t actually get off to a horrendous start. People were intrigued and drawn in by the content, as opposed to blindly supporting the channel or their political views. However these viewing numbers dropped off rapidly, which ultimately led to its failure.

“The other measure of success is advertising revenue, which of course may go hand in hand with viewing figures. TV is still one of the most trusted media and its signalling power ensures brands that are seen on TV are also trusted.

“However, as a Thinkbox Study (Signalling Success) showed, it is no longer just about being on the TV screen but also the screen environments you are in. After Farage’s comments on RNLI, several brands were called out for funding hate merely because they had presence on the channel – will other brands want to take these risks?

“Wherever he goes, Piers Morgan has a proven track record of bringing broad audiences with him. Although frequently divisive and controversial, his personal political positions are more elusive than those of a Nigel Farage, and that gives a much wider range of people permission to tune in, whether they do so to nod along or scream at the screen.”

“TalkTV has been widely described as Rupert Murdoch’s last pet project. It is likely to enjoy his full, personal support and backing. So its success is not just to be measured in the above terms. Success in this instance will be about figures and revenues, yes, but also about how a new media formula, spread across a variety of channels, streams and formats, can be weaponised to influence the national – and global – debate.”

McCabe adds: “I think how they will measure success will be as much about does it get traction, does it, does it have influence, does it have an impact, is it useful for the estate as a whole – in other words, is it a useful part of the News Corp portfolio? Those are the things I think will be important.”

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