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16 July 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 2:25pm

As GB News’ ratings collapse, who is it actually for?

The problem isn’t just the shoddy production values and the lacklustre content – the channel seems genuinely confused about its purpose.

By James Ball

In the weeks and months leading up to its launch, the people behind GB News insisted Britain was crying out for a different kind of news channel.

Its early ratings suggest otherwise. To say they have gone from bad to worse would be an understatement – on Thursday (15 July), the Guardian reported that on several occasions the official Broadcasters Audience Research Board ratings suggested the channel had had no viewers at all. While that is largely an artefact of the outdated way ratings are measured – a sample of households have a box tracking their watching habits – “zero viewers” is still the worst of all headlines for a new channel.

Watching rolling news, in the UK at least, has always been something of a niche pursuit, with fewer than 20 per cent of TV viewers tuning in to either the BBC or Sky News channels for even a minute or two most weeks. So even if its launch went as spectacularly as it possibly could, GB News was always likely to be a minority affair.

It is safe to say the launch has not gone as spectacularly as it possibly could. Those who feared a UK version of Fox News – and those who hoped for it – would quickly have found themselves disappointed.

GB News’ viewship halved during its first three weeks
UK weekly reach, C7 TV Set, by channel

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[see also: Rachel Cooke on GB News: technical failures and cringeworthy content]

Instead of the slick, well-oiled outrage and misinformation juggernaut that Fox News has become, GB News instead resembles nothing more than a community radio station. Most of the channel’s output is blandly inoffensive – the offence instead comes from its production values.

The picture quality is often fuzzy, the sound levels are all over the place and frequently drop out altogether, on-air hosting couples project all the warmth and charisma of an Arctic winter, and within days of the inaugural programme, segments were left resorting to items such as “what do you call in a bread roll in your area?” to fill air time.

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Even Andrew Neil – a veteran broadcaster and excellent interviewer, whatever your view of his politics – has foundered somewhat on the channel, giving Rishi Sunak a relatively soft interview that left us wondering whether an easy ride was promised in order to secure a big interview.

And then, within two weeks of GB News’ launch, Neil – the channel’s biggest name and the host of a crucial 8pm slot – left for his extended summer holidays, leaving the fledgling broadcaster up the creek without an anchor. Neil has tweeted none of GB News’ output for weeks, leading some to wonder if he will return from his holiday at all.

Less than a month after launch, even Twitter seems to have given up on hate-watching the channel for screengrabs – simply because it’s not worth watching the desultory output. That’s a pretty low spot for a new channel to be in.

The viewing numbers for GB News make for painful reading for its staff. A drop-off after launch week was inevitable – some viewers will always watch something new out of curiosity – but in GB News’ case, it’s been a total collapse.

In its launch week the channel had an audience reach of just under 2.7 million – meaning that many people saw at least a few minutes of its output – but by its third week of broadcasting this had dropped to less than 1.4 million.

Perhaps more disturbingly for the channel, in its launch week it accounted for around 0.6 per cent of total viewing (ie for every 1,000 minutes of television watched that week, six minutes would be GB News), but this dropped to 0.3 per cent by week three. If the channel hoped that it would build a loyal core audience, even as casual viewers moved on, the figures seem to suggest otherwise.

That leaves GB News overshadowed not just by the BBC but also by its commercial rival, Sky News. The BBC News Channel has a reach of around 7.5 million and a share of 1.3 per cent, while Sky sits at just under 4.5 million and 0.7 per cent. For the news channel-watching members of the British public, the alternative offered by GB News has so far proven unpalatable – they’re still fairly satisfied with the news they’ve got.

It seems unlikely that the backers of GB News have invested in the channel because they want it to make them dramatic returns in the short run. But they will still want to minimise losses, and if they must run a loss they will want to feel like they’re spending the money on something worthwhile.

[see also: Can GB News really compete with the BBC?]

It’s not clear that GB News can clear either hurdle: while it is less offensive and dangerous than some had feared (perhaps making it more appealing to advertisers), that has prevented it gathering a devoted audience, or being able to put clear blue water between itself and other news channels.

Only in the last week, the anti-woke news channel saw one anchor, Guto Harri, take the knee live on air in solidarity with the footballing anti-racism movement (he has now been taken off air), and had former England football manager Sam Allardyce endorse the same act in a live guest interview.

Both moments can be considered commendable. But as the tirade of internet comments show, they were not exactly what many of the channel's viewers were expecting. The channel itself seems confused by these moments – tweeting an incoherent statement that its on-air presenters and guests were entitled to their own views, while simultaneously denouncing Harri’s taking of the knee. The brighter people among the GB News crew must surely be looking towards the exit. 

GB News might, somehow, get its act together, fix its teething problems, and sort out its presenting roster – an inauspicious start doesn’t always mean a venture is doomed. But at present it serves as a reminder that even basic television is quite expensive to make, and that it is even more expensive – and difficult – to make excellent TV.

GB News currently resembles a tabloid take on a student broadcast newsroom. If it doesn’t shake that image its backers will join its viewers in wondering: just what is this channel actually for?