Rolling TV news is now a hopeless way to stay informed

BBC News has been undermined by superior online news
BBC News has been undermined by superior online news - BBC News
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Last week, a well-known name in media – formerly a senior figure at ITN, SKY and the BBC, in other words, someone who knows the news business inside-out – told me that 24-hour news channels have had their day. In fact, the last time he had watched BBC News or SKY to find out what was going on turned out to be exactly the same day that I did; June 24, 2023: when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin seemed about to stage a coup and topple Vladimir Putin. And before that? Neither of us could remember.

The fact is that, unless something potentially earth-shattering is happening, pretty much no one watches the rolling-news channels. If you look at the viewing figures for a channel like BBC News (the station that used to be called BBC News 24) they are pitifully low. Overall the station manages to grab just over 1 per cent of the available audience; for SKY the figure is lower still – about 0.78 per cent. 

There are times of day when either channel’s audience is scarcely measurable. Which prompts a question; why, at a time of falling revenues and squeezed resources, do these news channels still lumber on? Who are they for? What’s their purpose? They are beginning to look like dinosaur channels; great whales beached by technological advance and changing consumer tastes.

Rolling news as a concept was born in the US in the 1980s – by the early 1990s it looked like the future. CNN, the Cable News Network, was the pioneer and in those first years it had some electrifying successes. In 1991, during the first Gulf War, journalist Peter Arnett was able to bring the folks back home live footage as the first American bombs and rockets rained down on Baghdad.

Two years later, CNN was once again live at the scene of the crime when the Russian Parliament was besieged by tanks manned by opponents of Boris Yeltsin. The rest of the TV news industry decided they wanted a piece of the action too. Rupert Murdoch’s SKY News had been launched in 1989 and in 1997 the BBC finally launched News 24. The future of news, it seemed, had been decided and it was...continuous. But at the same time, the internet was coming of age – the availability of news online would come to undermine these news channels.

CNN used to have a motto: “Give us 30 minutes and we’ll give you the World”. The promise being that in half an hour’s viewing you’d get all the important news of the day. Half an hour: who needs that these days? A couple of minutes browsing the big news websites or digesting your own personalised newsfeed will suffice.

The rolling news channels, it turns out, don’t give us our news quickly enough. You often have to wait for half an hour or more for the story you are interested in to come around, and these days any big event will surface more quickly online than on the telly. It makes one wonder who actually watches rolling news: in my imagination I see exhausted executives in functional hotel rooms with nothing better to do before dinner slumped in front of BBC News. Or the dwindling number of people without internet access.

Rupert Murdoch’s SKY News launched in 1989
Rupert Murdoch’s SKY News launched in 1989 - Bloomberg/ Peter Foley

The news channels don’t even come into their own when a really big story breaks. When the late Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, 2022 the BBC cleared the schedules and gave its most-watched channel, BBC1, over to the story. Which left the news channel in the odd position of providing alternative BBC coverage of the same story. 

Until a year ago the BBC was actually running two rolling news channels – one for the domestic audience and another, BBC World, aimed at an international audience. The two were amalgamated last year as a cost-saving measure but that must, inevitably, prompt thoughts within BBC management about further ‘cost-saving’.

The latest BBC annual report costs the News channel at £66 million – money which could surely be put to better use elsewhere, such as buying the right to screen more big sporting events, an area in which the BBC has been in retreat for years.

There was a time when the BBC’s news output was relatively modest: three main TV news bulletins, some current affairs programmes and the radio news services with programmes like Today and the World at One. Over the past four decades the amount of news has increased enormously, but is anyone genuinely better informed?

Out of curiosity, I turned on BBC News the other day, and one of the main headlines was the latest findings of some report from the Care Quality Commission. Watching it I pondered just who needs this kind of information? It was news pabulum: a record of the doings of government ministers, quangos, some political squabbling and a bit of crime reportage. There are literally scores of news channels around the world churning out this kind of stuff non-stop – a broadcasting Tower of Babel offering low-level information to a largely indifferent audience.

One should never underestimate the power of institutional inertia; in an organisation like the BBC, once something is established it stays there just because it is there. It takes an effort of executive imagination to shift the dead weight of past practice. Rolling news was once the future – now it’s a relic. Time to think again.

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