The ongoing fun at TalkTV’s expense has pushed Guido to reflect at length on something that he has thought for a while. There’s too much broadcast political content chasing too small an audience and it will end in tears – for shareholders.
Guido had his second watch of Piers Morgan’s show last night, and by the standards of most current affairs shows, it is better-than-average infotainment. He’s doing issues in an accessible way, a bit more tabloid than say Peston, with much more show business than Marr used to put on his Sunday morning show. Will it work in the sense of making a profit? That remains to be seen. The economics of television favour mass market products; politics-focused television products lose money because politics is, in general, a minority interest and there are just not enough people in the UK to make that minority pay. ITV has always regarded politics as a loss leader, so TalkTV and GB News are attempting to do what no British commercial broadcaster has ever done. They are trying to do politics for profit.
The British television audience is one fifth the size of the US television audience, which is why Fox News, MSNBC and CNN can make money. Although CNN+, the channel’s new streaming venture, failed and shut down after just one month. In the UK magazines, think tanks and online political enterprises have all launched video shows and podcasts of varying quality to service political geeks. Content that mostly preaches to the choir, be it their readers or the ideologically allied. These are niche ventures that build brand loyalty and increase subscriptions and donations. The Spectator’s family of podcasts drive magazine subscriptions, and are financed by sponsors wanting to be associated with the glossy magazine and reach their affluent readers. On the left, Novara’s professional high production values and left-wing critiques give comrades Sarkar and Bastani a measurably bigger reach than TalkTV, funded largely by the donations of their left-wing fans. One think-tank boss told Guido that if their policy wonk focused videos reach just 500 people, that is ten times as many as would ever turn up to a policy seminar – if one donor likes what they see and makes a £50,000 donation, that pays for a lot of cheaply produced online videos spreading their message. The financial logic of these ventures is that they spread the brand message and are self-funding.
These online-only narrowcasters don’t pay presenters millions and don’t have the infrastructure of legacy broadcasters, with purpose built studios, satellite fees, network fees and big production staff head-counts. Yes, the production values are lower, yet viewers don’t seem to mind and they have surprisingly big audiences. They will continue to thrive.
The new channels – GB News and TalkTV – have gone for the infrastructure of legacy broadcasters, in the full knowledge that Sky News loses £20 million-a-year and that the BBC News Channel has a tiny audience by BBC standards. Whilst GB News is doing things on a tighter budget, break-even is still some way away. What takes these channels into profitability will be multiplying their audiences ten times. Good luck with that…