Who Cares About Your Opinion? Why the Foxification of British News Isnt Working (Column)

A strange trend is taking place on British television: Opinionated American-style television channels have appeared for the very first time.

Both generally right-leaning in agenda, if you watch GB News on any given night, you’ll see regular features about so-called “cancel culture” and “wokeism,” as well as a show hosted by the former populist UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Watch “Piers Morgan Uncensored” on TalkTV on any given night and you’ll see rather surreal opening titles consisting of a brain farting out the words “snowflake society,” followed by Fox News-style swooping sound effects and a monologue where Morgan tries to “cancel the cancel culture.”

So why is it all so strange? Well, despite heavy publicity, these shows and channels don’t appear to be resonating with U.K. audiences. “Piers Morgan Uncensored” has consistently shed viewers, from 317,000 overnight viewers on launch day, to less than 60,000 just over two weeks later. Wednesday’s episode received an average of 44,000 viewers, according to ratings body BARB. In comparison, a repeat of digital channel Quest’s “Salvage Hunters,” where people discover rusty old objects, received on average three times more viewers.

It may come as a surprise to Americans that news networks with an opinionated or political agenda in Britain have never been a thing until now. For decades, our news channels and programs have been fact driven, with our newspapers instead being the place to find opinion and an agenda reflecting your worldview.

This flipped media landscape, compared to the U.S., is partially down to the cultural dominance of the BBC in the U.K., with impartiality in news seen to be one of its core principles. It’s also down to how broadcasters and radio stations interpret the rules set by Ofcom, a regulator whose purpose is to ensure that the programming on TV and radio does not harm viewers.

Ofcom’s rule on “due impartiality” was interpreted by many people as requiring equal prominence to different sides in a political debate or in news coverage, moderated by the presenter, inevitably making them an impartial observer.

But over time, there was an understanding that these rules were actually looser than initially thought. Broadcasters realized that you could have different hosts with different political opinions on at different times to achieve balance, such as talk radio station LBC having the politically left-leaning James O’Brien on in the morning, followed by the more right-leaning Iain Dale later on in the evening.

Last year, the iNews website reported that these impartiality rules could be even looser still, with an Ofcom executive saying that a guest and a presenter could share the same opinion, and that “due impartiality” could be reached by the presenter asking a critical question or rebuttal, or presenting the argument an opposing guest could have made if they were there — or the same topic could be addressed at a different time, in a later slot, with a host or contributor who disagreed. It is this latter structure that GB News and Talk TV appears to follow.

And yet, “Piers Morgan Uncensored” on TalkTV has lost nearly 80% of its overnight linear TV ratings. Other new primetime shows on the network have so few viewers that BARB can’t accurately measure them, resulting in them being credited as having “zero viewers.”

Piers has downplayed the importance of these ratings, saying that “linear TV is increasingly irrelevant to the total eyeball potential for a global show like this.” His show is also distributed far and wide, simulcast on its sister radio station talkRADIO and also broadcast on Sky News Australia. It is also available on the streaming network FOX Nation in the U.S., which means that the show’s true success (or failure) is relatively opaque like many shows on streaming services. Yet, you only need to head to the show’s YouTube to see that clips and entire episodes rarely rise above 10,000 viewers. He’s got an uphill battle to climb.

Then there’s GB News. Launched just under a year ago, the channel received a lot of attention, but perhaps not for the reasons it would have wanted, with many early programs beset by technical glitches and shows looking as though they were being broadcast from a bunker. It too started with promising ratings of around 336,000, beating BBC News and Sky News in its time slot, but now rarely breaks through 100,000 in primetime.

GB News has since widened its reach to a radio station and on-demand. It has relied on clips being spliced up to be shared on social media and has touted “billions” of digital views. In an interview with Press Gazette, the news network claimed that TikTok was one of their most popular platforms, where it has more than 200,000 followers. Yet in comparison, a TikTok account of a British man feeding his pet seagull currently has 3.2 million. You can’t help but wonder whether, as the channel is reaching its first anniversary, it is matching its expectations.

Their underwhelming debuts also make you contemplate just how much of a British appetite there is for opinionated news channels in the first place.

A 2021 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford, for instance, said that 76% of viewers think that news outlets should provide a range of views and leave viewers to make up their minds on these issues, and 68% said that perspectives should be shared from all sides.

Ask many Brits what they think about U.S. cable news outlets, and many react in horror at how such polarizing news coverage has shaped discourse in the United States. It’s early days for both networks and they could obviously expand their audience as viewers get more familiar with their content, but it could also well be that at a time when British viewers are offered an opinionated news channel, the opinion that they share is that they don’t really want these channels at all.

Scott Bryan is a TV critic and broadcaster, based out of London. Focusing mostly on British TV and the rise of streaming services, he is the co-host of the Must Watch TV review podcast on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sounds. 

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