By Julia Horowitz, CNN Business
GB News wants to make one thing very clear: The upstart TV channel does not see itself as the British Fox News.
“That is an easy, inaccurate shorthand for what we are trying to do,” Andrew Neil, the former BBC host who is the chairman of the network, said in a recent interview with the Evening Standard newspaper.
That may be true. But GB News, which launches on Sunday, is likely to have more in common with opinion-driven American cable shows than the news programs currently on air in Britain, shaking up the country’s TV landscape with commentary that wades directly into the culture wars.
Experts on Britain’s media industry say it’s not clear the channel will work as a business over the long run. But it may succeed in attracting an audience of aggrieved viewers, making it a political force similar to the country’s right-leaning newspapers. It’s planning to launch a radio service as soon as next month.
“There’s no question — they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t believe the BBC and other UK TV news wasn’t excessively woke and liberal,” said Patrick Barwise, co-author of the book “The War Against the BBC” and emeritus professor of management and marketing at London Business School.
Fighting the culture wars
The launch of GB News comes as pandemic restrictions in the United Kingdom have eased, allowing for some semblance of normal life to return as restaurants and pubs fill up. But political finger-pointing over fallout from Brexit and the government’s handling of Covid-19 continues, while cultural issues, such as claims of racism in the royal family made by Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, continue to dominate headlines.
The latest controversy is over whether football players should take a knee to protest racism at the Euro 2020 tournament which kicked off Friday. English players who did so at recent matches have been booed by some fans.
GB News has indicated that it aims to tackle issues like this head-on. For months, Neil has been trying to recruit bombastic TV host Piers Morgan, a vocal critic of so-called “woke” culture who abruptly left “Good Morning Britain” after criticizing Meghan earlier this year.
“Cancel culture is insidious, it stands against everything we have stood for since the Enlightenment onwards and that is why it is serious,” Neil, who will host a regular segment titled “Woke Watch” on his GB News program, told the Evening Standard.
Neil, a journalist with more than four decades of experience, said that GB News “won’t be like Fox in that they come from a hard right disinformation fake news conspiracy agenda.” He’s noted that all UK broadcasters have to adhere to strict regulatory standards on impartiality and accuracy that don’t exist in the United States.
But the network will try to emulate the format of Fox News and MSNBC, with a focus on big personalities that stalwarts BBC, Sky News and ITV have historically avoided.
“There’s no point in launching another news channel that just does exactly what the existing incumbents do,” Neil said at the Financial Times’ Future of News event on Thursday. “You have to do something different.”
Boosters say GB News will appeal to people who don’t see their concerns being addressed by traditional broadcasters. But even before the channel’s launch, it’s generating pushback. Advocacy group Stop Funding Hate has been calling for an advertising boycott using the hashtag #DontFundGBNews.
“The aggressive positioning of GB News as an anti ‘woke’ TV channel is likely to raise ongoing concerns,” Richard Wilson, director of Stop Funding Hate, wrote in March. “At a time when brands have more choice than ever about where they do and don’t advertise, many will doubtless be asking themselves whether GB News is a controversy that they need to be dragged into.”
The business question
Neil has criticized the boycott effort by “woke warriors.” But GB News’ ability to bring in advertising revenue will be crucial.
GB News has secured £60 million ($84.6 million) from investors including Discovery — which has agreed to a merger with CNN parent WarnerMedia — and the hedge fund titan Paul Marshall. Neil has emphasized that the network wants to make money by its third or fourth year and could then expand into other national markets in Spain or Eastern Europe.
But questions about its viability have increased since media mogul Rupert Murdoch officially scrapped plans to launch a TV news channel in the United Kingdom. Murdoch’s News UK said it had determined that such a channel didn’t make sense financially following a review by US network veteran David Rhodes. Fox News was pulled off the air in 2017 after failing to find an audience in the United Kingdom.
“We determined early on in that review that it was not commercially viable to launch a traditional news channel,” News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks told employees in April.
Gill Hind, a TV analyst at Enders Analysis, said the decision to not launch a new channel “says something about the market,” and could indicate that GB News will struggle to find an audience, even though it will be widely broadcast in the United Kingdom.
Barwise noted that News UK actually had key commercial advantages over GB News, since it would have been able to pool reporting and back offices with its three big British newspapers, The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times — which lost £202 million ($285 million) in the year ended June 2020 — and promote the channel across its products.
That Murdoch still backed off, then, is “very telling,” Barwise said. His view: GB News is “clearly a political project.”