Virgin Media launches, response mixed

Virgin Media was today unveiled as the new name for ntl and Telewest, with the new entity aiming to shake up UK consumer telephony, entertainment and communications provision with a quad-play offering.

The cable company last year completed the £962m acquisition of Virgin Mobile, making Richard Branson a 10.7% shareholder in the firm, which celebrated today by firing a volley of press releases.

  • Virgin Media will on February 20 launch a new interactive channel, Virgin Central, offering a range of imported US shows on-demand. Channel 4 and the BBC already had similar offerings available via ntl’s TV interface.
  • That deal was struck with Disney’s Buena Vista distribution arm.
  • Virgin also struck a deal to put multiple series of CSI on the on-demand platform.

The company is also making available the former Telewest’s Sky+-like TV Drive personal video recorder box. Renamed V+, it is a high-definition device which, for an extra subscription fee, can record multiple programmes simultaneously on a hard drive and offers a series link.

And Virgin, which last week announced the changes to customers in a direct mail campaign, has also restructured ntl’s pricing plans.

But the new company will have to both counter claims the exercise is more than just a rebranding exercise and improve on ntl’s much-derrided customer service record, which Virgin has acknowledged to be “crap“.

Virgin Media claims to be offering an unique “quad-play” bundle of digital TV, broadband, mobile and home phone service. But Jupiter telecoms analyst Ian Fogg wrote: “It simply isn’t [unique].

“Local loop unbundling, the success of DSL broadband, mobile virtual network operators, carrier pre selection and wholesale line rental have changed all of that. Virgin has to innovate.”

Orange, Vodafone, BT, Tiscali, Sky, Tesco and more all offer similar services, Fogg said, as the UK shapes up for an explosion in consumer choices that will  prove “carnage” for the providers, according to one new media executive quoted in  this week’s MediaGuardian.

Today’s launch was marred by BSkyB renegotiating its TV carriage deal with the cable company in a move that could see it lose millions in revenue. Rupert Murdoch’s company is also threatening to deprive Virgin viewers of shows like Lost as its carriage deal for Sky One is also up for renegotiation. The satellite company is barring Virgin Media’s ads from its TV commercial spots today.

Meanwhile, despite this morning’s launch, not all ntl TV customers’  set top boxes have been updated to account for the new black and red electronic programme guide livery. At least, mine hasn’t anyway – although customer services last night told me the switchover would have happened by midnight.