MEDIA FORUM: Should ONdigital begin blowing its own trumpet? - Good news from ONdigital last week. It now has 110,000 subscribers. But it has no grounds for complacency - media specialists are already worried it may be lagging dangerously behind Sky in ot

If last week’s figures from ONdigital were a surprise, at least they were a pleasant surprise. The digital terrestrial operation owned by Carlton and Granada has been keeping its cards close to its chest since its launch at the end of last year, and some analysts had begun to believe that there was a good - or rather bad - reason for this. They suspected that ONdigital decoder boxes were not exactly flying off the retailers’ shelves.

If last week’s figures from ONdigital were a surprise, at least

they were a pleasant surprise. The digital terrestrial operation owned

by Carlton and Granada has been keeping its cards close to its chest

since its launch at the end of last year, and some analysts had begun to

believe that there was a good - or rather bad - reason for this. They

suspected that ONdigital decoder boxes were not exactly flying off the

retailers’ shelves.



Last week, ONdigital announced that it had gained 110,000 subscribers in

its first four months of operation. This is excellent, especially when

you consider that Sky Digital signed up 120,000 customers in its first

four months and that this achievement was hailed as a major victory.



Some lingering doubts still remain - for instance, the ONdigital figures

don’t tally with figures from the retail industry - but there’s no doubt

that this is a result.



Time is surely on the side of not just ONdigital but all of the digital

platforms. Well, perhaps. Unfortunately for ONdigital, huge

question-marks remain. At a recent television conference, one of the

favourite topics of conversation was the company’s near invisibility at

ad industry level.



Despite these good figures, many in the business are still worried that

the company is not competing effectively enough with Sky. And Sky, after

all, is continuing to build on its head start - it is now believed to

have a total subscriber base of more than 500,000.



According to Paul Taylor, the managing director of BMP Optimum, it’s

still hard to interpret the subscriber figures. He states: ’Sky clearly

has more digital viewers but given that a substantial proportion has

converted from Sky analogue, Sky and ONdigital are acquiring subscribers

at roughly the same rate. Given the current level of cable penetration

and with digital cable yet to launch, we can still expect significant

developments later this year. The availability of integrated TV sets

will benefit ONdigital and provide a further prompt for consumers.



’The expected launch of Open (Sky’s interactive system) this autumn will

have a similar effect on the take-up of Sky Digital - the opportunities

provided by interactive television, internet and e-mail applications

will help drive penetration levels.’



Although ONdigital’s consumer marketing has its critics, you can hardly

fault it for getting across its main ’multi-channel through an aerial’

message. However, some wonder whether that’s enough. Maybe those who

haven’t signed up for Sky are reluctant for reasons other than the fact

that dishes are unsightly.



’ONdigital is heavily reliant on Sky’s programming output, with its own

current stable of programmes being perceived as second string,’ Chris

Boothby, the broadcast director of BBJ Media Services, argues.

’ONdigital must try to avoid being seen simply as a digital platform if

it wants to compete effectively, especially as Sky has already

established itself as the prominent programme and channel provider. With

digital cable about to appear on the horizon, bringing with it programme

choice and genuinely integrated interactive opportunities, and with Open

about to launch its services on Sky Digital, ONdigital must move fast to

establish its credentials if it wants to avoid becoming the poor

relation within the digital TV marketplace.’



But many believe this isn’t where ONdigital’s main weakness lies. They

argue that it is continuing to cause trouble for itself by ignoring the

advertising community. Nick Theakstone, the broadcast director of

MediaVest, says it’s instructive to compare the sales and marketing

efforts of the two rival platforms: ’Sky is clearly focused on the

direction it’s going. It is clear and forthright in expounding that

message. Their people are good at getting agencies and clients down to

Osterley (Sky headquarters) and showing them the studios and what the

technology can do. They’ve actually been installing it in various

establishments, including clients’ offices.



’That’s very important because, whatever people say, they tend to be

scared of new technology and actually being able to see it and touch it

helps. ONdigital has been conspicuous by its absence. Maybe they’ve been

scared of making a noise so far because they feel they’ve got nothing to

make a noise about - but the odd update would have made sense.’



Many sources say they continue to be astounded at the lack of

contribution being made by ONdigital’s owners, Carlton and Granada. Why

isn’t their expertise, experience and wealth of contacts, especially on

the advertising sales side, being called upon? According to some stories

doing the rounds, sales people from both companies have tried to offer

their advice, but it has been rejected unceremoniously.



Theakstone continues: ’No-one’s sure who’s selling it. They must have

interesting things to say to us. Let’s hear it - because your rival is

taking advantage of your absence.’



On the other hand, you could argue that ONdigital is wise to keep quiet

while it establishes itself. Sometimes hype is the worst option. And it

isn’t easy to get this right. When Sky first launched its analogue

service a decade ago, it took a while to get that side sorted.



But Nick Manning, a managing partner of Manning Gottlieb Media, says

that ONdigital has to try harder. He comments: ’I think it’s unfortunate

that ONdigital did not decide to have an advertising sector spokesperson

or salesperson to talk to major media agencies and advertisers. They

really need to keep people abreast of what’s going on in the digital

terrestrial area. We are ill-informed and the thing about our sector is

that when we are ill-informed, we tend to think the worst. We hear

nothing of the good things they may be up to.’



Sky shouldn’t be complacent, however. It too has flaws. ’They have done

a typically good job so far but they have under-resourced interactive,’

Manning says. ’There’s plenty of interest in what Open has to offer but

they haven’t been able to respond to it.’



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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

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).