Viewing figures for Andrew Neil's flagship 8pm show have dipped below the 100,000 mark, dropping as low as 33,000 on Thursday last week
Credit: Simon Walker HM Treasury
As John Whittingdale fielded questions over the future of Channel 4, he took the chance to defend the broadcaster’s latest challenger.
GB News has endured a choppy two weeks punctuated by technical problems, viewer complaints, advertising boycotts and a stand-off with rivals over access to footage.
Yet according to the media minister, there was no indication that the opinionated channel would find itself on a collision course over impartiality with the Government or the media regulator Ofcom.
"I think viewers appreciate having provocative views expressed, as long as it doesn’t turn into a propaganda station," he told an event hosted by Voice of the Listener and Viewer on Wednesday.
"I don’t think there is any sign of GB News doing that in the same way that any other broadcaster [would]."
Such reassurance would be welcome for GB News executives if they were not grappling with a much bigger problem.
After sprinting out of the blocks with viewing figures that left other news broadcasters trailing, GB News is now at risk of losing its sizzle.
On Sunday July 13, the channel’s opening show hosted by broadcasting veteran Andrew Neil attracted an average audience of 262,000. That figure peaked at 336,000 in the opening minutes.
It provided an early blow to BBC News and Sky News, which hauled in respective viewing numbers of 100,000 and 46,000, according to analysis by TV ratings compiler BARB.
Since then, the channel trying to capitalise on the culture wars has found itself caught in a game of catch-up.
GB News clocked an average daily audience of 42,000 on Monday, June 21. By the end of the week, viewing had drifted down to 31,000 – well below the respective 95,000 and 59,000 viewers notched by BBC News and Sky News.
Meanwhile, the channel’s flagship 8pm show, spearheaded by Neil, has also shown signs of strain.
After clocking 164,000 viewers on the day after launch, Neil’s show struggled to draw crowds consistently.
Viewing figures have dipped below the 100,000 mark, dropping as low as 33,000 on Thursday last week.
The Euro 2020 tournament may be partly to blame. Many broadcasters face a battle to keep their audience share as viewers flock to the football.
Yet there are fears GB News’ early dip may be the first signs of a lasting decline.
The channel needs an average daily audience of 139,000 to attract the advertising spend needed to break even on annual costs of £25m, according to Enders Analysis.
With Neil – GB News’ star attraction – also taking a summer break to recharge his batteries, the route to safety grows tougher by the day.
Still, the 72-year-old former BBC presenter remains characteristically defiant in the face of doubting voices.
Announcing his hiatus on Thursday night, he put a gloss on the channel’s early efforts.
"Yes we had a bit of a rocky start at the launch of GB News," he said on his 8pm show. "We are a start-up. They are always a bit rocky these start-ups, but we are up and running as you can see.
"We get better every day and there is clearly an appetite for what we are doing. In two short weeks we have already built a loyal audience, which has beaten all of our expectations."
Turning a promising start into lasting success was always going to be a tall order.
Sky News has persistently recorded annual losses of around £40m.
But GB News may not wish to test its investors’ patience by failing to turn a profit in the early years.
Furthermore, the pandemic-induced advertising crash has also soured a notoriously tough environment for news broadcasters.
TV advertising fell 12pc to £4.3bn in 2020, according to the Advertising Association/WARC, although it is poised to grow by 9pc this year.
GB News also faced the added difficulty of overcoming a lukewarm enthusiasm from advertisers when it came to buying slots around news coverage.
"News programmes are subject to more stringent rules than other genres, making it harder to monetise," according to a GB News report by Jamie McGowan Stuart at Enders Analysis.
"They therefore deliver fewer commercial impacts than would be expected for their share of commercial viewing.
"Revenues are further impacted because advertisers are, by and large, unlikely to request to advertise specifically around news programming, while others would actively avoid it."
GB News will be expecting more heavy-lifting from Neil, whose BBC programmes The Andrew Neil Show and This Week averaged at more than 800,000 viewers two years ago.
The GB News team
Credit: Gareth Milner/GB News/PA
McGowan Stuart believes he faces hefty challenges, with GB News sitting much further down the channel guides than BBC One or Two, and his 8pm show competing in the prime time slot with soaps such as Coronation Street and Eastenders.
Yet, maybe GB News can still find success without attracting huge audiences.
The channel is also weighing whether it can find financial security with a model more recently pursued by national newspapers.
GB News wants to test whether a core group of 150,000 superfans would be willing to pay a £5 monthly subscription to help bolster revenues, according to reports.
But that too comes with its share of challenges.
"Experiences and subscription content require additional perks to convince people to pay," McGowan Stuart adds.
"A challenge for GB News when it is already committing so much resource to its broadcast output."
The weeks ahead will provide a clearer picture of how hungry audiences are for GB News’ disruptive brand of opinionated news.
Neil has made it clear that he would be willing to cut his break short and appear on air "should news events demand it."
"I’m simply taking a break to replenish my batteries after the rigours of the launch," he said. "Plus I have other business matters to attend to. I’ll be back before the summer is out brimming with ideas."
If audience numbers remain under pressure, GB News executives may have no choice but to place him on speed dial.