MEDIA HEADLINER: Kingston shifts emphasis from telephones to interactive TV - The Hull-based interactive TV company is flexing its muscles

Not many people would understand immediately the connection that Kevin Walsh, the managing director of the Hull-based Kingston Interactive Television (KIT), is making when, with his tongue some way inside his cheek, he observes: 'Hull is a lot like San Francisco. Both cities have a world-famous bridge and in both places you can speak as long as you like on the phone for 5p.'

Not many people would understand immediately the connection that Kevin Walsh, the managing director of the Hull-based Kingston Interactive Television (KIT), is making when, with his tongue some way inside his cheek, he observes: 'Hull is a lot like San Francisco. Both cities have a world-famous bridge and in both places you can speak as long as you like on the phone for 5p.'

In fact, Hull's telecommunications system has long been a justifiable source of civic pride. Its white telephone boxes identify this as a one-off, council-owned operation. It has consistently trumped the mighty BT in developing new technologies and benefits for consumers. Moving, for instance, from analogue to digital exchanges years before BT was able to do likewise.

These days, the council owns a little less than half of a now publicly listed Kingston Communications Group. The civic pride, however, remains as strong, even if the emphasis has changed - Kingston is now leading the way in the development of interactive TV technology.

KIT has just concluded the most far-ranging ADSL-based test in the UK, and is now rolling out its mixture of multi-channel TV, broadband, always-on internet connection, local interactive retail and information services to 170,000 homes in the Hull area.

Its next stop, within the next three months, will be choosing an agency to put together a pounds 25 million advertising campaign selling this previously low-profile operator to a national audience for the first time. Once, that is, the company is actually able to offer this service - together with video on demand - to a national audience.

Walsh, a marketer with experience at brands such as Hoover and Candy, has been charged with overseeing this transformation. He has already moved to address the marketing requirements, asking the AAR to help him compile a shortlist of agencies.

So far, FMP has handled a largely direct marketing campaign aimed at Hull residents. With the move to national capability will come a new agency and the first major press and poster campaigns.

Further evidence of KIT's national ambitions can be found in its application for access to 1,000 BT local exchanges across England, once BT's monopoly of local services is broken up on 1 January.

This will allow KIT to take over lines at the request of customers and upgrade the old copper wires for broadband use. It's no small undertaking.

KIT spent just pounds 3 million upgrading its network. The best estimates for the cost of developing a nationwide pay-TV and interactive service suggest an investment of around pounds 1 billion.

'We haven't been keen on promoting ourselves before now because we want to be able to tell people what we can do or have done, not what we hope to do,' Walsh explains. 'We want to be technically the most advanced ADSL company in the world and I think we are now very close to that. Commercially, we want to be the most competent - and that is where marketing and selling the service to consumers comes in.'

Walsh was previously the group commercial director at Hoover and the managing director of Electrolux. However, for six years he was the managing director at On Demand Information, a company that sold a business-to-business ISDN package.

'The reason I am wary of making claims about what your service will do before you can deliver is because I have new-media experience,' he explains.

Indeed, KIT has had some teething problems. The video-on-demand service, which includes films, documentaries, music and travel, could not be installed beyond a three-mile radius of four local exchanges. That has now been resolved thanks, in part, to a pounds 13 million deal with the French telecom company Alcatel.

'With any new technology there are things that don't work as well as they should,' Walsh admits.

'However, when we are ready to start rolling the service out and marketing our message nationwide, we will have delivered locally what we say we want to deliver nationally. No-one - provider or advertiser - owns interactive TV yet . This is the moment of opportunity.'



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