Johnny Webb, the managing director of Virgin Media Television, is under a very intense spotlight that would instil stagefright in many, but makes him break out in a sweat of pure excitement. Amid the bloodbath of the very high-profile Sky/Virgin spat, Webb is launching a new channel, Virgin 1, on Freeview, which he hopes will appeal to a broad audience and help cross-sell Virgin Media's other services.
With the familiar Virgin moniker featuring in the channel's recently unveiled branding, Webb has to hit the mark without damaging a high-profile brand. Launching to a potential mass audience on Freeview also means that Virgin 1 has a lot to prove very quickly.
The feedback from friends, colleagues and industry observers is that, if anyone can do it, Webb can. Lisa Opie, the head of content at five, who was Webb's boss when she headed Flextech TV, observes: "Johnny deals with pressure incredibly well. This is precisely the kind of excitement he'd enjoy. Johnny's greatest skill is thinking outside the box; he's very creative, but commercially creative."
Problem-solving and making channels successful is something Webb has already achieved. His repositioning of Bravo into a thinking man's TV channel hit the mark, and he has developed Living into a brand with more widespread appeal beyond a female-only audience. In an overcrowded multi-channel environment, this is no mean feat, but Webb admits Bravo's success didn't come as quickly as he had hoped. "Getting people to sample now is so hard - it took longer to turn Bravo around than I thought. A year longer," he admits.
This experience has taught him that overnight success is not a certainty. He believes it could take four months to get Virgin 1's schedule exactly right and clearly communicate its market position to viewers and advertisers. "There's an immense amount of goodwill behind the Virgin brand, so if you don't get it right from day one, they will forgive you," Webb says. "But also, there is a huge burden of expectation that goes with being a terrestrial channel. This will be the last mainstream entertainment channel launch in the UK."
Webb hopes the Virgin brand in itself will lure people to try out Virgin 1. Although it will be skewed towards male viewers, the aim is to give it broad appeal and snatch viewers from ITV2, ITV4 and BBC3. The US import The Riches, starring Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard, will be a showcase programme on launch. Webb says: "The Riches is so us, it's untrue. The lead actors are Class A British Hollywood talent. It's got quite dark undertones and doesn't have that American saccharine feel; it will be the easiest thing to buy into." Factual programming such as Penis Envy will show Virgin 1's witty, irreverent side. Webb is keen that, in time, the channel will boast a good proportion of British programming, in line with Virgin's association as a strong British brand.
Opie believes recent buys for Virgin 1, such as The Sarah Connor Chronicles, are spot on. "It's a great buy, absolutely on-brand, noisy, loud and a great bit of TV, as is The Riches," she says. "Part of Johnny's challenge is getting the right tone of voice for the channel - Virgin is a huge brand and Virgin TV has got to have its own distinctive voice."
Launching on Freeview is crucial to the future success of Virgin's cable operations. Webb argues that the dramatic growth in the pay-TV market is grinding to a halt, while Freeview has been bounding ahead. He says: "Suddenly, there's this huge new community of Freeview viewers who don't know us, and we can bring immense value to Virgin Media, using Virgin 1 as a showcase."
Virgin 1 could be the means of helping to stem the terrible churn of Virgin's cable customers (70,300 customers were lost, according to its second-quarter results) and provide an effective marketing tool to bring consumers back into the Virgin Media family of products. Virgin 1 viewers will be urged to indulge their passion for The Sarah Connor Chronicles by watching the next episode on the subscription channel Virgin 1+1, and Star Trek fans, hooked on the gazillion episodes Webb has bought in, will be able to tap into a social networking site where they can indulge their passion. "We'll try to connect with Virgin Media customers and talk to them about the different ways they can use Virgin Media," Webb says. "It'll be a ruthless marketing machine - when you have people emotionally connected to programming, that's when people understand our brand; otherwise, we're a cold technology sell."
There will be guerrilla marketing tactics to get people's attention, from the look of the channel and the continuity voiceovers, to the marketing. And with this comes a more experimental attitude in working with advertisers. One thing being considered is the possibility of selling all the advertising on the opening night to a single advertiser, which would be a TV first.
It was in his first career steps as a marketer for Unilever where Webb learned the importance of understanding his target audience. And you can't help feeling that his methodical, yet inventive, approach to providing solutions will serve him and Virgin well. He is keen to help in developing Virgin's broadband offer and recently announced a deal with the UK indie Hat Trick to create comedy shorts for Virgin 1's website. "The timing is perfect to prove that broadband and TV work really well and complement each other," Webb concludes.
Family: Wife, Lynda, four-year-old son, Oscar, and one-year-old
Most treasured possession: Scale model of my father's paddle steamer,
Favourite TV show: Britain's Next Top Model, Gavin & Stacey
Interests outside work: Classic cars, the beach and vintage cider
Motto: Screw it, let's do it