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Comcast takes aim at CNN with NBC-Sky global news channel

Comcast Corp

Comcast takes aim at CNN with NBC-Sky global news channel

US group seeks long-elusive recognition for its brands in rare bet on profit-thin sector

© FT montage

Comcast’s NBC and Sky will this summer attempt to overturn three decades of CNN pre-eminence in international television news, jointly launching a new channel in a rare commercial bet on the profit-thin global news business.

NBC Sky World News is a bid to win the news services’ long-elusive international recognition and will mark Comcast’s first effort to unite its transatlantic brands since its $30bn acquisition of UK-based Sky in 2018.

Andy Lack, chairman of NBC News, told the Financial Times the service would draw on a 3,500-strong combined workforce and over time hire 100-200 dedicated staff. Ten new bureaus will open worldwide, extending the NBC-Sky reporting footprint by about 50 per cent. On launch the television channel will reach 130m households.

Aside from state-backed entities willing to burn money to gain soft power, few companies have dared challenge CNN International and BBC World News in global television news, a business with no accurate viewing figures and a limited pool of advertisers.

For years the situation left NBC deeply frustrated at its inability to convert its US news clout — NBC and MSNBC boast some of America’s most-watched network and cable news shows — into worldwide prominence.

“We’ve longed for an international channel,” Mr Lack said. “Going back to the Gulf war when CNN essentially came on to the scene, we knew then at NBC that if you weren’t in the 24-hour news business globally, you weren’t really in the news business. So when I first went to NBC in 1993 it was like, goddamn, how do we get one of those?”

That opportunity finally arose with Comcast’s 2018 purchase of Sky, the pan-European broadcaster that owns Sky News. The takeover provided a European infrastructure to build on — NBC Sky World News will be based at Sky’s Osterley campus on the outskirts of London, housed in the Rupert Murdoch Building.

The question for Comcast and NBC is whether the new venture will have the financial patience, news gathering élan and distinctive voice to cut through in a crowded market moving increasingly online. One executive at a rival channel compared the risks to a Friends episode in which Jennifer Aniston “makes a combination of trifle and shepherd’s pie”.

Andy Lack and Deborah Turness of NBC © Charlie Bibby/FT

At the helm of the operation is Deborah Turness, a British TV executive who ran NBC News through a turbulent spell between 2013 and 2017 before being given responsibility for developing its international arm.

Even at her first breakfast meeting with Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts, Ms Turness recalls he “most wanted to talk about how we go about becoming a global news brand”.

“That was clearly top of his mind,” she said. “He travels so much . . . he would stay in hotels and consume lots of international news and lament the fact that although he had America’s number-one news brand . . . it wasn’t global and he felt by rights that it really ought to be.”

Ms Turness sees a gap in the market for a service “with a truly global perspective, that doesn’t come from a national point of view” — a veiled reference to CNN International pulling back from some overseas bureaus and relying on more content from its US channel.

While its editorial plans are still under wraps, the NBC-Sky channel will be heavier on news than commentary and open to innovation with mobile technology and social media. “We must be distinctive,” Ms Turness said. “We are not going to just be churning newsreel.”

For some time Mr Lack and NBC have been dogged by journalist Ronan Farrow’s claims that the network obstructed his reporting on Harvey Weinstein — an accusation NBC denies. Asked if he had any regrets, Mr Lack said: “None at all . . . I feel good about NBC’s reputation and as it relates to coming together with Sky we are excited about the work we will do together.”

Some competitors are baffled by NBC’s plans given the sector’s business challenges, especially since it will be unlikely to benefit from the distribution payments that make up more than a third of CNN and BBC revenues, according to insiders.

NBC Sky World News will be available online and through streaming services such as NBC’s Peacock. But rather than earn income from traditional television distribution, NBC Sky World News will probably need to pay some carriage fees if it is to approach CNN’s 388m television reach outside the US and the BBC’s 468m worldwide.

BBC World News, which makes an operating loss, generated £25m in TV advertising in 2019 and £21m in licence fees paid for its channel. CNN International does not disclose its accounts, but revenues are in the range of $350m-$450m, according to people familiar with the company.

“Why go into a sector as mature as international television news?” asked one news executive in the sector. “One thing is for sure: it isn’t to make money. It is like football clubs. It’s good for players and fans, not so much for the owners.”

The Lack-Turness duo have experimented in the sector before, with mixed results. In a 2017 deal worth roughly $30m, NBC bought a 25 per cent stake in struggling channel Euronews with the aim of “changing the landscape of international news”. Although NBC will remain a shareholder, the Sky acquisition totally shifted the focus of effort.

Mr Lack brims with confidence about his parent company’s “real and long-lasting” commitment to making the service a success. “This isn’t work for the faint-hearted,” he said, but added that with Comcast behind them “we will be fine”.

Under the arrangements, the new service will share reporters, video feeds and resources with the NBC family of news outlets, including CNBC and NBC correspondents. In a nod to commitments made during the takeover, Sky News will independently decide when and where to pool resources.

Mr Lack and Ms Turness remained tight-lipped about the business plans and the editorial vision for the new channel, or how it would develop a digital presence.

But they acknowledge what will be the most important measure of its success. “Don’t take us too seriously as business types,” he said, adding: “It’s the journalism, stupid.”

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