How GB News will shake up the post-pandemic broadcast landscape

The advertising boycott of GB News by leading brands, instigated by Stop Funding Hate, has been a PR dream for the fledgling news channel.

Controversy is not a problem for Andrew Neil’s ‘anti-woke’ alternative to existing rolling news channels - it wants to be seen as different. Indifference was surely a bigger fear. Finding an audience in a crowded market is its biggest challenge.

Excited media chatter

The pre-emptive decision by the likes of Octopus Energy, Nivea, Kopparberg, Bosch and the Open University to pull advertising from GB News was taken on the grounds that it goes against their values of openness and inclusivity. Greg Jackson, CEO of Octopus Energy, was the most outspoken critic, saying: “We do not advertise on platforms whose primary purpose is the distribution of hate”.

For months, there has been a lot of excited chatter in media circles about GB News becoming the UK’s answer to Fox News and shaking up the broadcast landscape, bringing a new partisan tone to political debate, but the reality is more prosaic.

Not that controversial

GB News encourages its presenters to be outspoken and its tone will clearly be different from its competitors, but hiring veteran broadcasters such as Simon McCoy, from the BBC, and Colin Brazier, from Sky News, was hardly a sign that the barricades were being stormed. Ofcom rules are much tighter than those in the US so GB News can only be a pale imitation of Fox, even if it wants to court political controversy.

The more interesting question for PRs is how the launch of GB News should fit into their wider media strategies. In a sense, it mirrors changes that have already been brought on by the pandemic over the last 12 months.

GB News has been ridiculed for the technical hitches that have plagued its opening week, but all news broadcasters have had to lower their production standards. Pre-pandemic, interviewing guests over Skype seemed like a last resort and felt amateurish; now Zoom interviews are the norm. That has democratised rolling news, giving access to the airwaves to a wider range of contributors and has made it easier for PRs to secure opportunities for clients. Studio one-on-ones will return eventually, but the pandemic’s legacy will endure.

More news is good news

Having a new player in the market should also make PRs think more carefully about audience segmentation. GB News wants to reach an ‘overlooked and marginalised’ non-metropolitan audience - that might appeal to challenger brands who want to differentiate themselves from the opposition. Conversely, you might think carefully before putting an established market leader with strong brand equity on a low-budget channel in preference to mainstream channels with higher production values.

But surely the overriding message for PRs is that more choice is a good thing. The viewer demographic for GB News’ opening show was 57% male, 52% aged 65+ and 82% ABC1. Its average audience is likely to settle at around 70,000 - compared with average BBC News audiences of around double that size - but it will make plenty of noise on social media and get greater cut-through than its audience size would suggest. That could be attractive to some clients.

Politically, the last 12 months have been a strange time for broadcasters. In the early stages of the pandemic there was a sense of national unity, largely reflected in the tone of their coverage - which sometimes felt like public service broadcasting. But, as the political consensus has broken down, that has encouraged the return of a more questioning form of discourse. Expect to see this reflected across the broadcast landscape and not just by the market’s newest, noisiest entrant.

Written by Tim Jotischky, director of reputation at PR agency The PHA Group