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
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
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
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
Coopers & Lybrand, management consultant
Telegraph Group, marketing director
Telegraph Group, managing director
United News and Media, executive director, UK publishing
ONdigital, chief executive