Virgin flies into BSkyB territory

Branson takes on Murdoch in TV arena

LONDON — In the U.K., the Virgin brand has given maverick English entrepreneur Richard Branson success in an empire encompassing planes, trains and cell phones.

TV may turn out to be a harder nut to crack.

Branson, however, hopes that a free-to-air, Virgin-branded TV channel will curb the power of Rupert Murdoch-controlled British Satellite Broadcasting (BSkyB) and help to establish his Nasdaq-quoted Virgin Media cabler as another winning business.

Virgin 1, announced June 11, will bow this fall as a male-skewed entertainment channel comprising what is described as an innovative mix of U.K. original shows and U.S. imports.

In true Branson style, the pre-launch hype is already under way.

“Virgin 1 will be a creative tour de force and a cutting-edge example of any time, any place content,” boasts Virgin Media Television head Jonathan Webb, referring to the upstart web’s new media functionality as an on-demand, multi-platform entity.

The web promises 6,000 hours of on-demand fare.

Webb is an ambitious programmer who helped put Flextech TV on the map in Blighty thanks to a viewing menu big on poker and the paranormal.

So can Virgin 1 help drive subscriptions?

“That will be hard to prove,” admits Webb, “but the new channel will be a relentless marketing machine for Virgin Media.”

Skeptics see Virgin 1 as a seat-of-the-pants response after BSkyB pulled its Sky One channel from the Virgin platform in February. The move, precipitated by a spat over carriage fees, is causing financial pain to both parties and Virgin is yet to recover from the damage Sky One’s disappearance did to the cable operator’s launch in January.

“Virgin Media is about three or six months behind where it ought to be as a result of the dispute with Sky,” says an industry expert.

Virgin’s Call Center is still handling irate customers who no longer have access to Sky One exclusive shows “Lost” or “24.”

Nonetheless, Virgin put out a statement June 8 insisting it was doing better than it had expected at retaining customers and attracting new viewers in April and May.

It’s likely that Virgin is prepared to offer subscribers very good terms to remain on board, as well as beefing up content.

Webb insists Virgin 1 was being assembled long before Sky One was removed.

“We’ve been planning this since last summer,” he says. “And Richard (everyone calls Branson by his first name at Virgin, famed for its studied informality) is 100% behind it.”

Already commissioned is reality adventure show “The Lee Houlding Project,” showcasing the British rock-climbing prodigy, and “The Real Exorcist,” a supernatural documentary made by U.S. independent Pilgrim Films and TV.

“We want U.S. indies to pitch to us,” says Webb. “The really switched-on American indies will know that our terms of trade are better than those offered by U.S. networks.”

But does Virgin 1 have the coin to compete with Sky One, which recently outbid U.K. terrestrial web Five for “Prison Break” to go with its exclusive first runs of “Lost,” “24” and “The Simpsons?”

“We are very much in the market for big titles,” Webb claims. “I’ve got the money that I need to grow the channel over time.”

Two recent acquisitions are “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” from Warners, plus 624 hours of “Star Trek.”

However, industry consensus is that until Virgin 1 can scoop a big sports deal — rights to soccer’s English Premier League are tied up until 2010 — it will struggle against Sky One.

“The dispute between the two is very aggressive,” says an analyst. “But once BSkyB starts to seriously promote Sky One, Virgin won’t know what’s hit it.”

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