A curious trend is unfolding on British television: for the first time, opinionated American-style television stations are appearing.
Both are generally right-leaning in their agenda. If you watch GB News on any given night, you’ll see regular coverage of so-called ‘abandonment culture’ and ‘wokeism’, as well as a show hosted by former UKIP populist leader Nigel Farage. Watch Piers Morgan Uncensored on TalkTV any night and you’ll see some pretty surreal opening titles consisting of a brain that farts out the words “snowflake society”. followed by crashing Fox News-style sound effects and a monologue in which Morgan attempts to “break the abort culture.”
Why is this all so strange? Well, despite heavy publicity, these shows and channels don’t seem to be resonating with UK audiences. Piers Morgan Uncensored has consistently turned viewers off 317,000 viewers overnight on launch day to less than 60,000 a little over two weeks later. Wednesday’s episode averaged 44,000 viewers, according to ratings board BARB. In comparison, a rerun of digital channel Quest’s “Salvage Hunters,” in which people discover rusty old objects, garnered three times as many viewers on average.
It may come as a surprise to Americans that news networks with a wayward or political agenda have never been a thing in Britain until now. For decades, our news channels and programs have been fact-driven, and our newspapers are instead where you can find opinions and an agenda that reflect your worldview.
This inverted media landscape compared to the US is partly due to the BBC’s cultural dominance in the UK, with impartiality in news being seen as one of its founding principles. It also depends on how broadcasters and radio stations interpret the rules of Ofcom, a regulator tasked with ensuring programs on television and radio do not harm viewers.
Ofcom’s ‘reasonable impartiality’ rule has been interpreted by many people to mean that different sides in a political debate or in reporting under the moderation of the moderator must receive equal attention, which inevitably makes them an impartial observer.
But over time it became clear that these rules were actually looser than originally thought. Stations realized that to achieve a balance, you could have different presenters with different political opinions at different times, such as talk radio station LBC, which has the left-wing James O’Brien on stage in the mornings, followed by the right-wing Iain Dale later that evening.
Last year, the iNews website reported that these impartiality rules could be even looser, with an Ofcom executive saying that a guest and a moderator could share the same opinion and that “appropriate impartiality” could be achieved if the moderator asked a critical question posit or rebuttal, or the presentation of the argument an opposing guest might have made had they been there – or the same topic could be brought up at another time, in a later slot, with a host or contributor who disagreed . It is this latter structure that GB News and Talk TV seems to follow.
Yet TalkTV’s Piers Morgan Uncensored lost almost 80% of its ratings overnight on linear TV. Other new primetime shows on the network have so few viewers that BARB can’t measure them accurately, resulting in them being credited with “zero viewers.”
Piers downplayed that meaning of these reviews, saying that “linear television is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the overall eyeball potential of a global show like this”. His show is also getting far and wide, simulcasting on its sister radio station talkRADIO and also airing on Sky News Australia. It’s also available on the FOX Nation streaming network in the US, meaning the show’s true success (or failure) is relatively opaque, as with many shows on streaming services. However, you only have to go to the show’s YouTube to see that clips and entire episodes rarely climb above 10,000 viewers. He has a tough fight to climb.
Then there is GB News. Launched just under a year ago, the channel got a lot of attention, but perhaps not for the reasons it would have liked, as many early programs were plagued by technical glitches and shows looked like they were being broadcast from a bunker. It also started out with promising ratings of around 336,000, surpassing BBC News and Sky News in its slot, but now rarely breaks the 100,000 mark in prime time.
Since then, GB News has expanded its reach to include radio and on-demand. It has relied on clips being stitched together to share on social media and has touted “billions” of digital views. In an interview with Press Gazette, the news network claimed that TikTok is one of their most popular platforms, with more than 200,000 followers. In comparison, a Brit who feeds his pet seagull currently has a TikTok account of 3.2 million. One can’t help but wonder if the channel, which is celebrating its one year anniversary, is living up to its expectations.
Their stunning debuts also have you wondering just how big the UK’s appetite for opinionated news channels actually is.
For example, a 2021 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford found that 76% of viewers think news outlets offer a range of views and should allow viewers to make up their own minds on these issues forming opinions and 68% said that perspectives should be shared by all sides.
Ask many Brits what they think of US cable news networks, and many will be appalled at how such polarizing reporting has shaped discourse in the United States. It’s early days for both networks and they could obviously expand their audiences as viewers become more familiar with their content, but it could well be that at a time when UK viewers are being offered a idiosyncratic news channel, opinion that they share that’s who they share I don’t want these channels at all.
Scott Bryan is a television critic and broadcaster based in London. Focused primarily on UK television and the rise of streaming services, he co-hosts the Must Watch TV Review podcast on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sounds.
https://variety.com/2022/tv/global/piers-morgan-uncensored-talktv-gb-news-foxification-1235266461/ Why foxification of UK news doesn’t work