Sky News wants to air more argument and opinion, like American news channels

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Sky News is to take inspiration from American networks such as Fox News and CNN and introduce more opinionated content onto the channel, as it prepares for a major relaunch of its operations next month.

Its deputy head and strategic guru Graham McWilliam says that Ofcom rules on impartiality in news broadcasting were not a barrier to increasing the amount of "argument, debate and opinion", which he said "brings liveliness" to a rolling news channel.

McWilliam says that he does not mean giving a platform to party politicians but building on the popularity of shows such as The Pledge and Press Preview where contributors are encouraged to express forthright views. “People like discussion, debate and opinion,” he says. “I think we haven’t had enough of that in the past and I don’t think our rivals do enough of that. It’s something that American news channels are better at.”

This is a key moment in the 26-year-history of the UK’s first news channel. On 24 October it will start broadcasting from new studios. Two of its most high-profile presenters – Jeremy “JT” Thompson and Eamonn Holmes – have decided to retire, coinciding with a raft of changes to the schedule which have seen other on-camera figures leave the network. Some younger presenters are being given new opportunities in an attempt to “refresh” the Sky News brand.

Sky sees this step change as a chance to reiterate its commitment to a dedicated television news channel while – equally importantly – emphasising to its staff, Sky customers and the wider public that its mobile platforms are no longer considered secondary to the network’s traditional medium.

New home, new schedule

Stepping into Sky Central, the new hub of Sky’s sprawling complex in the distant and unfashionable west London suburb of Isleworth, is to get an idea of the company’s wealth (its £12bn annual revenues dwarf those of the BBC) and the position of Sky News within that business.

Here you will find trendy cafes, a Sky Movies cinema, a gym and a restaurant with French-accented waiters serving staff rainbow trout for £4-a-throw. Overlooking all this is a new TV studio, flashing headlines on an electronic news ticker and ready to host some of the Sky News daytime output from next month.

“We have always called this a campus and beforehand you might have sniggered about that,” admits McWilliam. “When you are competing with the likes of Google for developers, and BuzzFeed for journalists, I think this sort of thing counts.” What was once a collection of dowdy huts now has the first cashless Waitrose as a symbol of corporate adaptability to new technology. For Sky News to access this new studio and “put ourselves right at the heart of Sky, literally and metaphorically, was a really good place to be,” McWilliam says.

It’s a signal of Sky’s commitment to rolling news when the BBC News Channel has faced doubts over its future (in July, the BBC decided against merging it with global channel BBC World News but introduced editorial budget cuts). “You get the sense that they would quite like to do away with that but can’t quite do it,” says McWilliam. “We are slightly perplexed because we don’t agree with the philosophical underpinning they seem to have. We think that in 24-hour TV news we need to refresh, update, invent, but it has a very important future.”

Much reinvention is currently taking place. Holmes is being replaced as host of Sunrise by Sarah-Jane Mee, who began her career as a runner on Sky Sports and formerly presented for Heart FM. Dermot Murnaghan is leaving his lunchtime role (which McWilliam says was “not a very high profile slot to be perfectly honest”) to take over the evening flagship Sky News Tonight, leaving Adam Boulton to host new morning show All Out Politics, which aims to use its 10am slot to set the agenda for rival programmes such as the BBC’s Daily Politics.

All Out Politics will play to Boulton’s strengths in "politics and interviewing", whereas Sky News Tonight did not, says McWilliam. “I don’t think he’s the most fluid presenter compared to someone like Dermot, i just don’t think it’s his thing…whereas Dermot is an absolute pro, the guy makes it look effortless.”

Kay Burley, one of the network’s most prominent figures (on social media as well as on television) is to be given a larger slice of the schedule, from 3pm until 6.30pm. Burley’s spiky interviewing style has on occasions made her part of the story. McWilliam is a fan. “She has got the spark that we like, we want to get noticed and talked about.”

Following Fox?

The Pledge, which bills itself as a “no nonsense, straight-talking” show and features regulars such as Nick Ferrari and Rachel Johnson, is likely to go twice-weekly from next year. McWilliam would like it to be a daily show. Sky News wants more of this type of argumentative content – especially for when there is no big breaking story on air – and it thinks it can learn from America.

“I think both CNN and Fox do it well. I know that the audiences Fox get for those shows are very significant and they make a lot of money off the back of that, and I assume that CNN must think it is similarly beneficial or they wouldn’t be doing it.”

Sky has remained very different from Fox News, despite its shared heritage within Rupert Murdoch’s global media empire. Suggestions that it might want to follow Fox’s right-wing agenda have always been wrong-headed because of Ofcom’s strict rules prohibiting political bias in news. And Sky News has always stressed that its political neutrality is vital to its credibility.

But McWilliam argues that the Ofcom rules are not the straight jacket that they’re sometimes portrayed as. “I don’t think they’re that restrictive,” he says. “People write and talk about it as though somehow Ofcom is forcing you all to some middle ground. There are very particular rules around elections which I think most people would think ‘Rightly so’, but I don’t think expressing opinions is in any ways outwith the rules from Ofcom.”

He praises the relationship between Fleet Street political adversaries Kevin Maguire and Andrew Pierce in Press Preview and stresses it is “the spark” rather than “antagonism” that Sky News is looking for.

The business model for Sky News is very different from that of Fox News or CNN. Its mission is not so much mass audience and consequent advertising revenues, as demonstrating value to those Sky customers who regard it as integral to their subscription package.

Increasingly, these “habitual” Sky News consumers are coming to the mobile-based content. Some 70 per cent of Sky News viewers use both mobile and TV output. The TV audience is up 4 per cent year-on-year at 5.4 million viewers a week, while the mobile and app audience is at 5.1 million, and growing more quickly. In each category there are around 1 million “habituals”, either coming to the TV network four days a week for 10 minutes or more, or using the mobile services twice a day at least four days a week.

Snapchat desk

The Sky News Snapchat desk doesn’t have the obvious glamour of the TV studios. There’s no sign of a make-up department or presenters wafting past in foundation and the latest purchase from their wardrobe allowance. But the 10-strong team led by Sky News output editor Alan Strange is making great strides as Snapchat Discover’s official news partner (in America it’s CNN, while the Sun and Mail Online both contribute lifestyle content to the young platform in the UK).

Sky News does not discuss its Snapchat figures but The Drum understands around 100,000 users are coming regularly to this content, probably an entirely separate audience from the one that watches the news channel.

Launched in February 2015, this dimension of Sky News goes out each morning at around 9am in batches of around a dozen stories (it’s not a frequent feed like Facebook or Twitter) and is lighter in tone than you might expect from a Boulton or Burley. “We can play with the language and express ourselves much more,” says Strange. “It’s all underpinned by the core journalism – a big Alex Crawford exclusive will go in but we have to format it in the right way.”

For a breaking news broadcaster with the traditions of Sky News, Facebook Live has been a gift. It has produced more than 250 bespoke films for the platform, allowing its 6 million Facebook followers to ask questions of presenters in a way they cannot on TV. “All our talent are experienced in live broadcast – the thing that’s new is the real-time interactivity with the audience,” says Rich Evans, Sky News' head of social media. In total Sky News will generate one billion video views on Facebook this year.

It is also partnering with Twitter, where it has 3.5 million followers, on the Periscope live streaming platform, recently achieving an audience of 15,000 for Barack Obama’s final speech from the United Nations. It has 400,000 subscribers to its YouTube channel. Half of these social media followers are under 35. “It’s an opportunity to engage a much younger audience,” says Evans.

But he emphasises that this social media expansion is “not at the expense of our owned and operated media”. For Sky News, the focus always comes back to those loyal users from within the subscription base.

Steve Gardner, the output editor who oversees the Sky News website and app, makes clear just how carefully it treats users in this space. The Sky News digital operation is making a major shift from shooting content in horizontal “landscape” mode to vertical “portrait” shape, so users don’t have to turn their mobile sideways. Attempts to build interest outside big breaking stories include commissioning long reads, such as a 2000-word piece on the fallout from the Brexit vote, written by political editor Faisal Islam.

A new Daily Digest feature on the app will provide at-a-glance headlines at 6.30am and 4.30pm, with the hope of encouraging further habitual engagement. If a user simply scrolls over these stories each day without reading further, Gardner says that’s considered a valuable engagement with the regular consumer.

Headline testing software has been installed on the Sky News web-based output to gauge audience responses to a range of three headlines on each story. Clickbait headlines “do not serve users well”, says Gardner, and are banned for fear of annoying readers, as are push notifications that are “too teasy” and don’t deliver in the story.

Sky News might be looking for more ding-dong arguments on its big screen but on its equally important mobile platforms shouting is often best avoided.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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