Donald Trump appearing to storm out of a world-exclusive interview is just the kind of episode that Piers Morgan needs to attract attention to his show on TalkTV, the UK’s newest television station. That the former US president has claimed its producers doctored the pre-released footage has only added to the buzz surrounding the launch of the channel on Monday.
Yet however many eyeballs the presenter draws to his 75-minute encounter with Trump, the moment will be more significant for marking the return to British TV not of Morgan, but of his boss Rupert Murdoch.
The mogul, who has been out of the sector since the sale almost four years ago of Sky, which he set up in 1989, is making his latest attempt to upset Britain’s broadcasting establishment at a time when questions hang over his global media empire.
If TalkTV succeeds, it will help safeguard the future of Murdoch’s interests in a country where his News Corp business retains a broad influence but still carries scars from the tabloid phone hacking scandal more than a decade ago.
It is unclear whether prospective successors to the 91-year-old would be as committed to the company’s newspapers such as The Sun, the raucous red top he bought in 1969 and whose print circulation peaked in the mid-1990s.
After months of preparation, insiders are quietly confident that the fledgling channel will avoid the kind of production problems that marred the launch of right-leaning rival GB News last summer.
Yet they are far from complacent about the debut of the station, which will be free to view on terrestrial TV as well as online platforms including Amazon Fire, Apple TV and YouTube.
“I’m partly terrified, and partly very excited,” said Scott Taunton, head of broadcasting at News UK.
For all the hype surrounding Trump’s appearance on day one, which TalkTV has billed as “the most explosive interview of the year”, the company is keeping wider expectations in check.
Murdoch scaled back his earlier vision of a traditional news channel to compete directly with those from Sky and the BBC. Rebekah Brooks, who runs News UK, had reservations about such an ambitious project — not least given the investment required.
The result is in some respects a multimedia extension of the company’s existing talkRADIO station, which has long been pushing into video online. Using the radio line-up as a base for the daytime schedule, the project will also tap resources of Murdoch’s UK print titles — featuring reports from their correspondents in Ukraine, for instance — and their international stablemates, from The Wall Street Journal to The Australian.
“We have this great content . . . [making it] only available on a particular media to a particular audience seems a great shame,” Taunton said. “We’re not building a television news service from the ground up.”
News Corp has not disclosed how much it is spending on the project, although chief executive Robert Thomson has told investors in the Nasdaq-listed company that the station, while being “certainly impactful”, will be “low cost”.
Despite what sound like relatively modest ambitions, the stakes should not be downplayed. TalkTV could well prove to be the most important of several multimedia experiments News UK is undertaking.
Other notable initiatives include Times Radio, an audio spin-off of the 237-year-old national newspaper. Having acquired the radio operator Wireless Group in 2016, the company has also been developing podcasts from talkSPORT and Virgin Radio, and targeting a younger audience through social media.
“A lot of what News UK has been doing over the last 10 years or so has been attempting to secure the future of the company against some pretty tough headwinds,” said Matt Walsh, a former editor at ITV News who launched The Times’ multimedia department and now runs Cardiff University’s journalism school. “The move into broadcast is a big part of that.”
Murdoch has long championed tabloid journalism, which in print form at least is struggling to retain readers. In the longer-term, TalkTV could give the company options for The Sun, said Douglas McCabe, chief executive of media researchers Enders Analysis.
“There’s probably a recognition that The Sun’s future is highly visual,” he said. The TV station is “a route that could address a number of different questions. It’s partly about finding out if the tabloid experience has to be, in the end, more of a video than a text-based news experience.”
In the US, populist news is well established in broadcast format, as epitomised by Murdoch’s Fox News — the opposite of the UK tradition, where the sedate BBC accompanies racier newspapers.
Still, although he claimed that left-leaning viewpoints were already “very well served” by other UK broadcasters, Taunton denied the coverage would have a rightwing slant, noting that regular contributors would include Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader.
From a dedicated studio in west London, Piers Morgan Uncensored will also be broadcast on FOX Nation in the US and Sky News Australia. “You only have to look at the storm [surrounding the Trump interview] to see how much interest he [Morgan] can drive,” Taunton said.
In another sign of the station’s conversational tilt, Morgan is followed on the evening schedule by Sharon Osbourne. The media personality last year left a talk show on CBS in the US after she defended outspoken comments Morgan made about Meghan Markle before he quit Good Morning Britain.
“Controversialist talk television is something that several Murdoch properties on several continents have done pretty well” over the years, Walsh said, noting that the company was keen not to cede territory in Britain to the likes of US rival Discovery, an investor in GB News.
McCabe added: “Print is still extremely important. But, strategically, the business needs to look to the future.”