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Piers Morgan risks coming unstuck as viewers turn off TalkTV

·5-min read
Piers Morgan interviewed former US President Donald Trump for his debut on the new channel
Piers Morgan interviewed former US President Donald Trump for his debut on the new channel

After winning bumper ratings on the opening night of Rupert Murdoch's TalkTV, Piers Morgan gloatingly launched a counter-attack.

The former Good Morning Britain presenter rebuked former UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s attempt to derail his exclusive interview with Donald Trump. Moments before sitting down with TalkTV, the former American president received a dossier of criticisms Morgan had made about him, sent by the politician turned GB News presenter.

"So @Nigel_Farage tried to sabotage my interview with President Trump in a despicable act of two-faced weasel treachery," Morgan tweeted the day after his show debuted on the insurgent news station.

"Last night, my show @PiersUncensored got five times the ratings of his show. FIVE TIMES!!! Karma's a b*tch, Nige".

While revenge may have been sweet at the time, Morgan’s comments have not aged well.

After bursting onto British TV screens at the end of April with its plush sets, unique brand of US-style opinionated news and a heated interview with Trump, viewers tuning in to Murdoch’s BBC challenger have dwindled.

The average viewership of Piers Morgan Uncensored, from 8pm to 9pm, has dropped 80pc - from 316,000 on launch night to 61,700 a week later - according to TV ratings compiler Barb.

For other TalkTV shows, the impact has been more severe: The News Desk with Tom Newton-Dunn, from 7pm to 8pm, plunged 93pc to an average of 3,600 on Monday night, compared to 54,200 viewers the week before. The Talk with Sharon Osbourne, between 9pm and 10pm, has fallen 86pc from an average of 43,900 to 6,000.

Despite an advertising blitz and money spent on big-name guests, Murdoch’s station is facing questions over whether British TV viewers really want opinionated news despite clear demand for a BBC alternative.

Sources within TalkTV owner News UK insist the station's success will be measured more broadly, however.

They view its traditional TV audience as just one plank within a wider strategy that aims to help increase the organisation's impact beyond its radio, print and online media empire underpinned by The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun.

On Friday, it trumpeted that Piers Morgan Uncensored had reached 64m views online when taking into account clips distributed across social media websites and on-demand streaming services, as well as channels including Sky and Freeview.

While online advertising drummed up from such a digital reach will help support Talk TV, it is unlikely to prop up a costly operation and a weak return on TV advertising.

After all, rival GB News is estimated to need an average audience of around 110,00 across its shows to cover a budget of £25m per year, according to Enders Analysis.

Judging by TalkTV's sets, talent, marketing push and distribution strategy, its attempts to disrupt the British broadcasting landscape have not come cheap.

However, the fledgling station does have some unique qualities that could help it shine.

Outside of flagship shows hosted by Newton-Dunn, Morgan and Osbourne, TalkTV is using livestreams of its pre-existing TalkRadio shows to fill airtime. TalkRadio’s reach grew by a fifth to a record 542,000, according to its latest quarterly results, which could filter through into a TV audience.

Meanwhile, with those radio shows providing low-cost support, News UK can focus most of its investment on bolstering the output of its three flagship shows.

It is a more manageable feat compared to GB News, which needs to spread spending across a wider breadth of programmes.

TalkTV has also dispersed its risk by broadcasting Morgan's show across Murdoch's three networks in Britain, America and Australia. Still, this strategy still relies on Morgan's show to do the heavy-lifting to ensure the rest of TalkTV stays financially flush.

One way to buoy the whole ship would be to lean more heavily on News UK's newspaper journalists to furnish TalkTV with a steady stream of exclusive stories, creating publicity when rival media follow the coverage.

Furnishing the channel's other stars with exclusives and big name interviews, meanwhile, could prevent Newton-Dunn and Osbourne's shows from becoming lost in Morgan's shadow.

So far, TalkTV has secured some early hits. Aside from Morgan's exclusive interview with Trump, Newton-Dunn has landed one with Boris Johnson. Meanwhile TalkTV royal editor Sarah Hewson's scoop on a security breach at Windsor Castle not only made The Sun front page, but was covered by rival papers.

Tom Standen-Jewell, of Enders Analysis, says the station is likely to have a strong impact on current affairs coverage - regardless of any early ratings dips.

"Whatever its viewing figures, TalkTV's influence is likely to be disproportionate to them," says Standen-Jewell. "It will still have a hand in setting the news agenda and give News UK a chance to showcase their journalism. So, they will be able to define success quite broadly.

"I think if linear viewing is going badly then they will point to their digital impressions," he says. "While they may fall back on that, the lion's share of their revenues are going to be from the linear TV ad market. That has to perform well for this to be a success."

Ultimately, what TalkTV needs is time.

While GB News has yet to meet its lofty ambitions, the rival news network has proved it can build a consistent audience that is growing.

Shifting the publicity spend away from Morgan and towards the other two programmes could go a long way towards making TalkTV a more sustainable force. Piers Morgan Uncensored would benefit from inheriting a strong audience from Newton-Dunn's show, while it would also stop his own programme becoming shrouded in the kind of negative publicity that surrounds a misfiring channel.

In the meantime, Morgan is likely to shrug off the choppy performance.

Ahead of TalkTV's launch, the former News of the World editor told The Telegraph that he never suffers from moments of self-doubt.

"I think I've found my rightful place, and I'm better than the rest of them," he said less than a week before launch. "Until someone decides otherwise. And then I'll go and do something else.”

Yet being the star player of a struggling TV station might prove one blow too many for his teflon ego.

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