HEADLINER: ONdigital head pins hopes on flexibility in digital TV contest - Stephen Grabiner remains undaunted by Sky Digital’s ad blitz, Claire Beale says

No-one should be allowed to visit ONdigital’s Marco Polo headquarters on Battersea Bridge Road without Prozac.

No-one should be allowed to visit ONdigital’s Marco Polo

headquarters on Battersea Bridge Road without Prozac.



God, it’s depressing. You think digital TV is exciting, vibrant, the

future today? Not here, not yet. This is grey, dirty, dispiriting.

Cardboard boxes, stained carpets, muted staff hunched over computer

screens, a couple of technicians grumbling that every piece of hardware

entering the building has been faulty.



The last time I was in the grim smudge that is the Marco Polo building

was for the launch of BSB. The bad omens have been gleefully picked over

by those foretelling ONdigital’s demise and even now the building

gamefully manages a funereal air. Waiting in reception is probably the

most depressing thing to happen to me all week.



Then Stephen Grabiner arrives, a little bubble of hope and

enthusiasm.



Perhaps the guy is simply playing his part well - affable, charming,

insightful - but after waiting for half an hour in that place, I’d have

settled for a lot less.



It’s odd to sit in the drab open-plan office and watch Grabiner bounce

around with what verges on child-like excitement. He gives me a slice of

his birthday cake (he’s just turned 40 and hiding it well), skips to get

a collection of Thomas the Tank Engine figurines so he can show me the

Fat Controller (Grabiner’s nickname for his sensible PR man, who

chuckles politely beside me), talks often of the magic stardust that

will bring ONdigital to life, while pictures of his wife and children

smile from all corners of his desk. ’Fun’ is his mantra.



And ONdigital begins to get a personality.



It’s a start. But, hell, there’s a long way to go. Last week ONdigital

revealed details of its channel packages and pricing points, centred on

a proposition of choice and flexibility.



Then Sky Digital stole the show on Thursday with a multimedia blitz to

herald the arrival of digital television and lead the charge to capture

the hearts, minds and money of the confused and bemused British

public.



Grabiner, though, is undaunted. ONdigital has a few natural advantages,

he believes, over its mighty rival. For starters, ONdigital will work

with existing TV aerials so it’s a natural extension of the television

we already have. Then there’s ITV, the country’s most popular commercial

channel and one that won’t be available on Sky Digital.



ONdigital’s flexible packaging policy - ’giving the consumer the power

to choose’ - will also give an edge, Grabiner says, and for the first

time broadcasters will know exactly how many people are actually willing

to pay for their channel and will be able to make improvements (or give

up and go home) if demand is low.



Which could be interesting, considering ONdigital will incorporate a

number of channels shoe-horned in by its shareholders, Carlton and

Granada, and which would hardly top the typical viewer’s wish list. In

six or nine months’ time, Grabiner promises, unpopular channels will

either have been improved or replaced.



Grabiner believes there are really only about 15 or 20 great pay-TV

channels.



He foresees a shake-out of the ones that don’t make the grade. ’There’ll

be a return to quality, I just hope it’s quality which doesn’t limit

choice too much. The challenge is for all the digital platforms to find

more creative ways of delivering niche programming.’



So masthead programming (talks are already under way with key

publishers) and interactivity will serve minority interests and

supplement ONdigital’s unashamedly mass-market channel offerings.



Digital television won’t be about ’me TV’, Grabiner insists, as there

just won’t be enough quality programming to go round, but it will be

about add-on interactive services tailored to niche tastes.



Yes, yes, yes. But who’s going to win - Sky or ONdigital? ’The digital

television market will be large enough for both of us. The number of

subscribers to multichannel television in the digital age is going to

double in five to six years. Sky will probably stay more or less the

size it is, converting people from analogue to digital satellite, but we

will actually grow the pay TV market, drawing in people who want

extended choice but also want control over that choice.’



OK, in five years’ time, how will it look, Stephen? ’We’re going to have

millions and millions of subscribers to digital, 30 per cent to us, 30

per cent to Sky and maybe a little bit more to cable if it gets its act

together. This is not a repeat of the BSB/Sky battle,’ Grabiner says,

and he looks me straight in the eye.



THE GRABINER FILE

1983

Coopers & Lybrand, management consultant

1986

Telegraph Group, marketing director

1994

Telegraph Group, managing director

1996

United News and Media, executive director, UK publishing

1998

ONdigital, chief executive



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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).