A strange trend is taking place in British television: opinionated American-style television channels are appearing for the very first time.
Both generally right-leaning, if you watch GB News any night you’ll see regular reports on the so-called ‘cancel culture’ and ‘wake-up’, as well as a show hosted by the former populist UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Watch “Piers Morgan Uncensored” on TalkTV any night and you’ll see some rather surreal opening titles consisting of a brain that farts the words “snowflake society”, followed by Fox News-style sound effects and a monologue where Morgan tries to “cancel the cancel culture”.
So why is all of this so strange? Well, despite heavy publicity, these shows and channels don’t seem to resonate with UK audiences. “Piers Morgan Uncensored” has consistently lost viewers, from 317,000 viewers overnight on launch day, unless 60,000 a little over two weeks later. Wednesday’s episode averaged 44,000 viewers, according to ratings organization BARB. By comparison, a rerun of digital channel Quest’s “Salvage Hunters,” where people discover old rusty items, received an average of three times as many viewers.
It may surprise Americans that news networks with a dogged or political agenda in Britain have never existed until now. For decades, our news channels and programs have been fact-driven, with our newspapers being more the place to find opinions and an agenda reflecting your worldview.
This reversed media landscape, compared to the United States, is partly due to the BBC’s cultural dominance in the UK, with impartial reporting considered one of its core tenets. It also depends on how broadcasters and radio stations interpret the rules laid down by Ofcom, a regulator whose aim is to ensure that television and radio programming does not harm viewers.
Ofcom’s ‘due impartiality’ rule has been interpreted by many as requiring equal importance to different parties in political debate or news coverage, moderated by the presenter, making it inevitably makes an unbiased observer.
But over time, it was realized that these rules were in fact more flexible than initially thought. Broadcasters have realized you can have different hosts with different political views at different times to achieve balance, such as talk radio station LBC having the politically left-leaning James O’Brien in the mornings, followed by the right-most Iain Dale later in the night.
Last year, the iNews website reported that these impartiality rules could be even looser, with an Ofcom executive saying a guest and presenter could share the same opinion and that “impartiality required” could be reached by the presenter asking a critical question. or the rebuttal, or the presentation of the argument that an opposing guest might have made if they were there – or the same topic might be brought up at a different time, in a later slot, with a host or contributor who doesn’t didn’t agree. It is this latter structure that GB News and Talk TV seem to follow.
And yet, “Piers Morgan Uncensored” on TalkTV lost almost 80% of its linear ratings overnight. Other new primetime shows on the network have so few viewers that BARB cannot accurately measure them, resulting in them being credited as having “zero viewers”.
Piers minimized the importance of these notes, saying that “linear TV is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the full eyeball potential of a global show like this”. His show is also widely distributed, simulcast on its sister radio station talkRADIO and also broadcast 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 like many shows on streaming services. Still, you only need to head to the show’s YouTube to see that clips and entire episodes rarely exceed 10,000 viewers. He has an uphill battle to climb.
Then there is GB News. Launched just under a year ago, the channel has received a lot of attention, but perhaps not for the reasons it would have liked, with many early programs plagued by technical issues and shows seeming be broadcast from a bunker. It also started with promising ratings of around 336,000, beating BBC News and Sky News in its timeslot, but now rarely exceeds 100,000 in prime time.
GB News has since expanded its reach to a radio station and on-demand. He relied on pinned clips for sharing on social media and boasted “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 over 200,000 followers. Yet by comparison, a TikTok account of a Briton feeding his pet seagull currently stands at 3.2 million. One can’t help but wonder if, as the channel celebrates its first anniversary, it’s living up to expectations.
Their disappointing debut also makes you contemplate how much of an appetite Brits have 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 example, said that 76% of viewers believe the media should provide a range of viewpoints and let viewers make up their minds on these issues, and 68% said perspectives should be shared on all sides.
Ask many Britons what they think of American cable news channels, and many react in horror to how such polarizing media coverage has shaped discourse in the United States. Both networks are in their infancy and they could obviously expand their audience as viewers become more familiar with their content, but it could also be that at a time when UK viewers are being offered a channel of opinionated information, the opinion they share is that they don’t really want these channels at all.
Scott Bryan is a London-based television critic and broadcaster. Focusing primarily on UK television and the rise of streaming services, he is co-host of the Must Watch TV review podcast on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sounds.