HBO’s Succession has made media empires sexy again. But even in the secondhand glow of the year’s most acclaimed TV drama, with its feuding zillionaires and teetering titans, a “how to” guide to setting up and running your own rolling news network in the streaming era sounds like the ultimate niche read.
Consider that the minimum start-up cost for your home-brewed version of CNN or Sky News is going to be the region of $75 million. The writer of TV News 3.0, Zafar Siddiqi, knows whereof he talks: he has launched four news channels across three continents (CNBC Arabiya, CNBC Pakistan, CNBC Africa and Samaa TV, also in Pakistan).
And if you don’t have that sort of loose change to hand, you’ll have to bend the knee to a parade of oligarchs, institutional investors and bored millionaires theoretically open to splashing cash in your direction. Then, you’ll need to establish a production company, assemble a news-room, and learn how to deal with often flakey and egocentric reporters and anchors.
All that and rolling news has never been especially profitable with the exception of Donald Trump’s favourite, Fox News, in the US. Plus there is the existential challenge posed by the internet and social media (streaming, believes Siddiqi, is ushering news into its “third” era, following on from traditional broadcast and cable). So while Rupert Murdoch or his fictional Succession counterpart Logan Roy might conceivably take a nerdish interest in Siddiqi’s insights and predictions, what’s here for the rest of us?
Happily, Siddiqi is as accomplished a storyteller as he is news executive. TV News 3.0 is a far more ebullient read than its slightly dry title might suggest and brims with anecdotes. One of the more endearing sees the author haring around London trying to find a parking spot even as his dream of launching a Middle Eastern franchise of the CNBC business network falls apart before his eyes.
CNBC had agreed to enter into a franchise arrangement. But now Siddiqi needed to rustle up $10 million to fund the next phase of the project. The clock was ticking and CNBC was entertaining a rival franchise bid. On a mad dash around London door after door was figuratively slammed in his face. One final meeting had been arranged. But, unable to find anywhere to ditch his motor, he gave up. Just then, a car pulled out, he parked and was soon sitting down with the private banker whose backing would prove crucial to bringing CNBC Arabiya to the airwaves.
Siddiqi, who was in his forties when he left his high flying career with KMPG in Karachi to reinvent himself as a television news baron, is a natural born optimist. But the picture he paints of television news in 2019 is not encouraging. “There has to be something profoundly wrong when we live in a society in which virtually anyone can set themselves up as a purveyor of “news”,” he writes. “Where click-bait and fake news is deliberately concocted to suit political or personal agendas”.
Still, there are grounds for positivity. The tradition of the crusading newsman or woman doing whatever it takes to get their story is alive. He cites the BBC’s John Simpson donning a burka to enter Taliban-controlled Afghanistan prior to the US invasion in 2001 as a classic example. But modern TV journalists continue to go above and beyond he says, pointing to the 2015 report by John Sweeney on the European refugee crisis broadcast via social media app Snapchat.
The far less glamorous business of drawing up a financial plan, appointing a head of news, putting together a team and getting your network on the air is elsewhere dealt with at length. As the title promises, he also discusses how to appeal to internet-native younger audiences in this new age of media consumption. “Don’t consider how your content will look on a big screen in the corner of the living room, but how it will appear on a mobile phone screen being watched on a bus.”
Yet, even as he wades through the technicalities, Siddiqi can’t resist spinning a tale or three. He recalls interviewing a potential sales executive for CNBC Africa and being struck by the candidate’s charm and assuredness. He was clearly a natural born broadcaster and Siddiqi told him as much.
The prospective newsreader said he would consider Siddiqi’s pledge to make him a “star” – only to subsequently demand a 50 per cent pay increase. And this for a job he did not yet have. The offer was quietly withdrawn though the man continued to ring the office.
“The moral,” writes Siddiqi “is to never ‘look a gift horse in the mouth’; if it’s a good thing that’s being offered seize the opportunity.” Whether you’re a captain of the media or a toiling member of the commuting classes, this is an invaluable dollop of wisdom. Siddiqi’s wise, witty book is full of them.
TV News 3.0 is out now, published by Blue Magpie Books