Yesterday’s news? 

5 February 2014

Today happens to be the 25th anniversary of the launch of Sky satellite TV and with it Sky News, namely the UK’s first 24 hour TV channel dedicated to news and current affairs. Broadly speaking, Sky’s rolling news channel has been relatively successful in giving the Sky satellite platform a higher profile as well as initially providing a means of building some much-needed credibility for such a young broadcaster.

Sky News importantly gave the fledgling Sky satellite platform a talking point, effectively doing something that no other broadcaster at the time had done in the UK outside of breakfast television, namely longer-form news and current affairs coverage that more importantly (and unlike breakfast TV) didn’t make way for other forms of programming. Sky’s brief-lived satellite TV rival BSB didn’t have such a thing, and that could have been a small but significant factor in terms of causing BSB’s subsequent demise as well as later encouraging the BBC to establish News 24 in 1997 as its own 24-hour rolling news alternative to avoid making a similar mistake when it came to promoting digital television not long afterwards.

Producing original content for television that also happens to be watchable is an extremely difficult thing to do, but news and current affairs provides an endless stream of changing human interest stories that certainly benefit from a highly visual presentation style. No need to commission and edit comedy or fictional drama scripts, no need to worry about casting because real life provides everything that’s required; perfect for a business that was venturing into relatively unknown territory in relation to UK television broadcasting.

One event which arguably proved there was an appetite for extended news coverage in the UK was the 1991 Gulf War, something that caused the BBC to devote considerable amounts of time on Radio 4 FM, introducing rolling news coverage at the expense of its usual schedule. (This later resulted in a revamped and rebranded Radio 5 Live with a greater news and sport emphasis as a consequence of this.)

Due to many UK viewers being content with a choice of four or so TV channels, the so-called multichannel era didn’t really take hold until digital TV launched in 1998 with even more channel choice, and from that point onwards a growing number of viewers didn’t even need a satellite dish or cable TV subscription to watch a news channel. Both BBC News 24 (now officially known as the BBC News Channel even though a fair number of people still refer to it as News 24) and (later on) Sky News became available to watch in millions of homes, with international news channels such as Russia Today (now RT) and Al-Jazeera also becoming widely available later on for a wider news perspective.

As a result, most people are now spoilt for choice when it comes to 24-hour news channels, but do we really need them when you can obtain most of the news you could ever wish for online free of charge, including high quality video streams? No need to wait 10 minutes for another report to finish just to find out the news headlines. With modern online-based news reporting there’s no need to suffer the compromise that all news channels are confronted with, namely an inability to properly cover more than one news story at once.

This week there have been arguments against news channels put forward by no less than the former director of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, and its ex-head of strategy, Sean McGuire, as well as Raymond Snoddy, all suggesting more or less the same thing. And given what is now possible in terms of news reporting online compared to ten years ago along with the popularity of the BBC’s online news coverage, isn’t it time that a cash-strapped BBC seriously reconsidered whether or not its news channel should continue to exist?

Perhaps there’s a fear within the BBC of either losing some moral ground to Sky News by not having a direct competitor, or alternatively making the BBC News website become too popular compared to certain other rival news websites run by (sometimes) cash-strapped newspaper conglomerates who are frequently hostile towards the corporation, resulting in further anti-BBC sentiment as a consequence?

One or more of the above may have some basis in truth, but it is also true that news channels have tiny audiences outside of major breaking news stories and really significant news stories like the death of Nelson Mandela are also still shown on major TV channels despite earlier predictions that this practice would cease at some point. Dedicated news bulletins on BBC One and ITV still attract millions more viewers compared to news channels despite earlier predictions of doom and gloom for old-style pre-packaged news bulletins on traditional TV channels.

Apart from extended current affairs coverage, arguably the only real benefit of a dedicated TV news channel is when there’s an open-ended news story of public interest that isn’t quite significant enough to warrant main channel coverage, but nowadays online video streaming and the popularity of the BBC’s own iPlayer are more than capable of providing equivalent coverage. So all that really remains is for broadband availability to match that of television coverage and the very concept of a rolling news channel could end up being yesterday’s news.

This blog entry has been updated since publication to note that the Gulf War news service was on Radio 4 FM, not Radio 5.

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1 response to this article

Adrian 2 June 2014 at 3:35 pm

Most rolling news channels seem to be played in the background in public places with no sound, so the number of people who actually watch them is miniscule..

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