EXCLUSIVE: It’s a year to the day since Rupert Murdoch’s big British television bet TalkTV took flight, hitched firmly to the wings of Piers Morgan.
In the pre-launch marketing blitz, Morgan was pictured as half angel, half devil, but there was little doubt that News Corp’s UK arm thought he would be manna from heaven for television audiences.
“Love him or hate him, you won’t want to miss him,” ran the poster line, dwarfing branding for TalkTV, the new network he was spearheading. The message seemed clear: TalkTV was Piers TV. Morgan vision made real.
It was a mistake. Or at least that’s the view of Richard Wallace, the man who was parachuted in to run TalkTV three months after its launch. “He said very clearly, in front of all staff, that building a TV station around the cult of an individual is not the way to go,” says an insider.
Just ask Tucker Carlson, who was ruthlessly ousted from Fox News on Monday in a firing that proved that no one presenter is bigger than a Murdoch network.
Morgan’s big-name interviews on his Uncensored show (which also streams on Fox Nation in the U.S.) have been a bright spot of TalkTV’s first year, but Wallace’s arrival was a sign that not everything was going to plan.
Murdoch had flirted with the idea of a Fox-style news opinion channel in the UK for years, but had seen GB News steal a march and occupy similar territory. TalkTV was notching up dreaded “zero” ratings, splashy launch shows like The News Desk were struggling to find an identity, and it had failed to mesh legacy radio output with its new screen presence. “Nobody’s pretending mistakes haven’t been made,” a source reflects.
Murdoch wants to transform TalkTV from a loss leader to a cash cow capable of influencing the agenda and shaping voting behavior. Insiders will tell you that it is a long game; that Murdoch, and his son Lachlan, are prepared to be as patient as they were when building the Fox News juggernaut or transforming the fortunes of UK newspaper The Sun.
This is the story of how TalkTV’s first year on air will shape its future, as told by the channel’s top team, presenters, and employees.
Putting TalkTV On The Map
Wallace, TalkTV’s tousled-haired Head of TV, was frank with News UK CEO Rebekah Brooks when she was courting him for the job. He argued that his idiosyncratic résumé, which blends eight years editing UK tabloid newspaper The Daily Mirror with a decade-long spell as Simon Cowell’s right-hand man at Syco, gave him a unique perspective on producing news with the X factor.
Wallace told Brooks that he would have marketed and scheduled the channel differently at launch. Less Morgan, more noise about TalkTV’s provenance as a news network from one of the most powerful media companies in the world. “It’s not just some tinpot thing that’s been set up overnight,” says a source familiar with his thinking. “This is a proper piece of work, from a proper media organization, with a long and successful history.”
Morgan, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a slightly different perspective on TalkTV’s opening year. The presenter points to global headlines for his launch interview with Donald Trump and says TalkTV avoided the pitfalls of arch-rival GB News, which was so plagued by technical disasters that Andrew Neil, its main presenter, stormed out after just two weeks. “We’ve helped put TalkTV on the map,” Morgan tells Deadline with his trademark zeal for modesty.
Either way, Wallace’s vision to megaphone Murdoch’s clout was made a reality in a very literal sense as part of TalkTV’s quietly-introduced birthday facelift last week. Morgan’s show now opens with the words, “Live from The News Building in London,” alongside a sweeping panorama of the skyscraper that houses TalkTV alongside brands like The Times of London.
The television channel is under one roof for the first time, with Morgan’s show moving over from his expensively-assembled temporary studio in the suburbs of west London. The coming together is generally considered to be a good thing by employees, not least Morgan himself, who says the News UK building is an upgrade on his previous location in “an underground bunker next to a Premier Inn.”
Up on the second floor of the News UK headquarters, Wallace’s team has fitted out three studios and transformed a corridor into a filming space, complete with a lit walkway and giant screens.
Getting to this point has not been cheap. TalkTV made a loss of £34M ($42M) in its first year of operations, which appears to be the going rate for launching a British news network after GB News posted a near identical loss in its first two years of financials.
“Most of that is startup costs,” Wallace says in some of his public first comments since joining TalkTV. “The important thing is that as far as the business is concerned, that was the loss that we expected to make.”
He wants the station to feel more like the sum of its parts, rather than a collection of sporadic shows, hosted by presenters with differing agendas. The new studios are a signal to the audience that coherence is coming.
Morgan’s studio has doubled as a home for Jeremy Kyle, the former ITV presenter signed by Wallace last October, and ex-UK Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who hosts a Friday night show. Late-night chat show The Talk, which is nominally co-hosted by Sharon Osbourne, also has a new home — complete with a Fox & Friends-style curvy couch. On the same sofa sits afternoon presenter Vanessa Feltz, who was prized away from the BBC for a reported fee of £1M last year.
TalkTV is an evolution of TalkRadio, meaning that the majority of its schedule is visualized audio. As with the primetime schedule, a source says the “winds of change are blowing” for daytime output. Wallace has done away with “terrible” 1930s-style microphones and is tweaking lighting, sets, and chyrons. There’s talk of legacy radio presenters getting shows designed for TV, with insiders anticipating that Julia Hartley-Brewer’s breakfast program will get a makeover.
“Change happens in a weird way in this place,” says a presenter. “It’s very quick and very slow. On some things, they move at a snail’s pace, and then the laser beam of focus from senior management pops around and then suddenly, all the changes happen all at once.”
There is a feeling among staff that costs are being gripped with a tighter fist. Sources say Wallace has pulled resources out of on-the-ground reporting, while evening news bulletins have been axed. Guest fees are being scrutinized, with regulars on The Talk said to be unhappy after their pay packets were slashed to the “lowest common denominator.” One source even jokes that cans of Diet Coke disappeared from the green room.
Morgan Shows Guests The Money
TalkTV insiders speculate that Morgan spent £250,000 on guests in the channel’s first eight months, a figure that is not disputed by the presenter. He argues that his biggest interview to date, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, did not cost a penny and that his former employer, ITV’s Good Morning Britain, spends up to a quarter of a million pounds on bookings in a single month.
The Ronaldo sit-down, in which the footballer burned his bridges with Manchester United, generated 22M views and doubled Piers Morgan Uncensored’s YouTube following. The channel reached 1M subscribers last week and Morgan says it is a valuable asset in its own right, drawing parallels with his “spirit animal” Joe Rogan, who sold his podcast to Spotify for a reported $200M.
Morgan’s colleagues say the pressure to land big names is intense and that the show is not always an easy sell because of the host’s embrace of thorny issues. One source says Macy Gray was somewhat disturbed by the backlash over her appearance on Uncensored last year, when she told Morgan that having gender-affirming surgery does not make you a woman.
The former CNN anchor fires back with a roll call of names who have accepted an interview, including Andrew Tate, Kanye West, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Rishi Sunak, and Stormy Daniels. “I genuinely believe we have beaten every other news and TV show in the world,” he says. “If someone wants to put their hand up and say they’ve done better, let me see who you’ve had, and the impact those interviews have made, because I don’t think anyone’s come close.”
Talking To The “Commonsense Crowd”
Wallace is increasingly focused on editorial principles, according to those briefed on his plans. He is chairing morning conferences and dictating the day’s agenda. Consistency in story selections has become more important and he talks of having “one voice on the big calls.” Wallace also wants to see TalkTV shows cross-reference each other’s interviews and stories, which he believes is a hallmark of successful U.S. cable news channels.
“There are opportunities for opinion-led news outlets in this country,” he says. “With social media and the warp speed of news cycles, people just want to have a much clearer sense of whether something is a good thing or a bad thing.”
There is also a view that Wallace wants to lean away from mindlessly stirring the culture wars with endless debates about pronouns and woke orthodoxy. He tells colleagues that he wants to appeal to the “commonsense crowd.”
“One of the great things about this country is that there is a degree of tolerance,” he says. “Most people are not jumping up and down because some people choose to put their pronouns at the end of their email addresses.”
That’s not to say this sort of talking point is banished. Morgan hosted a debate about Sam Smith last week in which he and a guest, The Sun columnist Douglas Murray, repeatedly and deliberately misgendered the non-binary singer. Gay comedian James Barr was booked to defend Smith and was later subjected to homophobic abuse online for daring to disagree.
Morgan says some of his grandstanding is theatre, designed to juice his ratings and produce viral social media moments. He admits to being secretly pleased when a Just Stop Oil protester recently slandered him live on air by wrongly claiming he hacked “murdered children’s phones.” Morgan sternly threatened legal action, but never intended to follow through. “I just wanted to see his face. He crapped himself,” he laughs.
Morgan says he’s “quietly confident” about the direction of travel at TalkTV. His own show garners around 30,000 viewers on an average night, which can be lower than colleague Kyle’s audience and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s State Of The Nation on GB News, according to political blog Guido Fawkes.
Morgan was ratings obsessed at Good Morning Britain, regularly jousting with his BBC Breakfast rivals about overnight ratings on Twitter. He is noticeably quieter about Uncensored’s performance unless the show has a stand-out night.
Morgan now measures success by a broader set of metrics, including virality and whether his work is being amplified by other News UK brands, including The Sun and radio station TalkSport. He also monitors Uncensored’s impact on Fox Nation, which displays what’s trending without disclosing hard numbers. “They’re cock-a-hoop,” says a source familiar with Fox Nation’s thinking.
Morgan adds that he is encouraged by a young audience embracing his content, claiming that 72% of his YouTube audience is under the age of 44. He says this “advertiser-friendly crowd” is coming to his show because they are realizing that the “woke” worldview is “built on sand.”
TalkTV’s ratings as a whole have grown since launch, according to ratings body Barb, though it is still being beaten comfortably by GB News. The station’s monthly reach hit a high of 2.5M in January, a million up on April 2022, before dropping to 2.1M last month. GB News had a reach of 2.8M in March and has broken the 3M barrier twice in the past 12 months. BBC News and Sky News remain the dominant forces in 24-hour news with respective reaches of 10.7M and 8.3M last month.
A senior source says winning audiences over will be “hard yards,” but the hope is that when viewers come for noisy moments a handful will return. Another insider admits that the channel is exposed on slow news days and has not done as well as it should. “It’s about building a loyal audience that comes to you night in, night out,” the second source adds.
Wallace tells staff to “fish where the fish are,” meaning internet eyeballs matter, even if the advertising revenue is not remotely comparable. He does not have a ratings target in mind, though the channel does have a break-even goal, which he keeps close to his chest. There is a feeling at News UK that TalkTV should be higher up the television guide where it would be easier for the network to build on the £1.1M in revenue it generated last year.
Deadline understands that prior to launch, the company made an argument to the UK government that TalkTV should be considered a public service broadcaster and therefore benefit from a channel slot closer to the one occupied by local TV, the Conservative Party’s failed bid to boost Britain’s local media ecosystem. London Live, the capital’s local TV channel, holds the premium Channel 8 slot on Freeview and is broadcasting repeats of 1960s drama The Prisoner at the same time Uncensored goes live to the nation.
Morgan had lunch with Murdoch in LA earlier this month and says the nonagenarian media mogul was “incredibly supportive and extremely encouraging” about TalkTV. “They’ve repeatedly made the point: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. [The message is] just get it right, throw things at the wall and see what works; don’t be afraid to change things, and don’t get knocked off course.”
GB News Wars: Winner Takes It All?
It is difficult to talk about TalkTV and not mention GB News, the right-wing station once backed by Warner Bros. Discovery. As outsider upstarts with free speech agendas, the channels have common ground at first glance.
But TalkTV insiders don’t care much for the comparison and will tell you that GB News is increasingly extreme in its embrace of right-wing agendas, deep-state conspiracy theories, and vaccine hesitancy. Senior figures at TalkTV believe it is likely that only one channel will survive in the fight for audiences and ad revenue.
Morgan, unusually, is on the fence. “Is there room for both? Maybe,” he says. “Does it make more sense to think down the line that there might be one rather than two [channels]? Possibly. But I don’t really see us as direct competitors, we just happen to be swimming in the same news pool.”
Another TalkTV source puts it rather more succinctly. “We’ll win,” exclaims the executive. Few would bet against Murdoch getting what he wants. He usually does.