According to one leading British media executive, only a deluded person would launch a new television news channel in the UK. The enormous costs of creating an outlet from scratch meant it was “not commercially viable” – and the future instead lay in streaming services rather than traditional live broadcast channels.
That person was Rebekah Brooks, the boss of Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, speaking in April 2021 as she abandoned her company’s broadcast television plans. Exactly a year later, after a rapid volte-face, she is overseeing next week’s launch of talkTV, a new national channel fronted by Piers Morgan that could define her time in charge of the company.
Early on Tuesday morning Brooks will receive the first ratings which will reveal whether the gamble of building a national outlet around Morgan’s culture war rants has paid off. The first episode of Piers Morgan Uncensored – featuring an interview with former US president Donald Trump – has already attracted global coverage, with Morgan delighting in a confected row about deceptive editing of a promotional clip.
Other big-name guests are promised, aided by the channel’s willingness – unlike most other British news programmes – to offer large appearance fees to secure in-demand guests. Staff talk of £20,000 a week being available to persuade big names to appear, although a spokesperson insisted there was no fixed sum – and Trump was not paid to appear. The first edition of the show is nailed on to beat other British news channels, which struggle to get a few hundred thousand viewers in the same 8pm time slot – but whether this can be maintained for weeks is less clear. Despite the budget Caitlyn Jenner, who was due to appear on the show to discuss another favoured topic of the presenter, transgender rights, has already pulled out.
The confluence of events that led to talkTV coming into existence involve the pandemic, Meghan Markle and GB News. The founders of the UK’s other rightwing television channel originally tried to get Murdoch involved in their project, only for him to turn them down.
Kelvin MacKenzie, the former editor of the Sun and mentor to both Brooks and Morgan, said Murdoch had always been reluctant to partner with outsiders. “He said to me once, ‘never share’.”
Yet the coronavirus lockdown meant Murdoch spent an unusual amount of time in the UK at his Oxfordshire mansion, accompanied by his wife, Jerry Hall. This allowed him to watch with delight as GB News crashed on launch last summer – and observe the media circus as Morgan quit ITV’s Good Morning Britain after refusing to apologise for comments about Markle’s mental health. Within months, the abandoned News UK TV project was rebooted around Morgan, with the presenter signed to a three-year deal worth up to £50m with the cost spread across almost every arm of Murdoch’s empire.
As a result the channel that will launch on Monday is a modern media Frankenstein’s monster, created by bolting an existing radio station together with three hours of new television programming. Most of the TV station’s output will consist of video broadcasts of the existing talkRadio station, which has built up a small but loyal audience of 540,000 weekly listeners.
The evening schedule consists of Morgan’s flagship 8pm show, sandwiched between a warm-up political debate hosted by former Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn and a celebrity panel show similar to Loose Women, hosted by Sharon Osbourne.
MacKenzie, who picked up his phone while pouring concrete down rabbit holes in his garden, predicted that Morgan’s show “will work 101%” as long as he stuck to bashing woke policies and stayed away from political news. He said political discussion was a turn-off for most viewers, suggesting the 7pm show hosted by Newton Dunn faced difficulties: “I don’t think he’s got a prayer. GB News have shown how difficult it is to attract an audience with politics. It’s just an impossible thing.”
Insiders at talkTV describe a rigorous rehearsal process, overseen by staff hired from Morgan’s Good Morning Britain team and aided by the hundred-plus employees who have been recruited to work on the project. A key issue has been ensuring it does not endure the disastrous technical issues that reduced GB News to a laughing stock on launch. Several new staffers privately said they were amazed by the money on offer, while other prominent TV faces used talkTV’s interest to boost their salaries.
Not everything went to plan. A daily comedy show, pencilled in for a 10pm slot, has not made it to launch despite endless piloting. Sources said the likes of Johnny Vaughan, Jeremy Kyle and former Sunday Times journalist Grant Tucker had been trialled as hosts of the show – but despite hiring staff specifically to work on it, it is not considered ready for launch.
The influence of Fox News – which will carry Morgan’s show in the US on its Fox Nation streaming service – is not mentioned in promotional material. However, it is present behind the scenes, with management telling staff “friends from Fox” have helped talkTV with everything from set design to ideas for putting news packages together. Journalists at the Times have also been uneasy about being implored to appear as guests on a channel many fear could be downmarket.
One of the challenges for News UK could be whether the company’s tabloid rivals are willing to give Morgan the publicity he needs to make his act work. Until recently Morgan was a core part of MailOnline’s offering, with his every utterance being written up as breaking news on one of the world’s biggest celebrity news sites. Yet when the row with Trump went public on Thursday, MailOnline published a single critical story about Morgan halfway down its homepage beneath a promotional article about electric toothbrushes.
News UK declined to provide anyone for interview for this story while Morgan, who uses his 8 million followers on Twitter to pick headline-generating fights, responded to the suggestion of an interview by saying the Guardian was guilty of cancel culture.