MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON; MULTI-CHANNEL TV: How can cable compete with increasing satellite choice?

Cable must offer quality if it can’t compete with Sky’s quantity.

Cable must offer quality if it can’t compete with Sky’s quantity.

When the media village discusses the multi-channel revolution being

driven by cable and satellite, it often uses a fashionable analogy: in

the future, TV will be like a newsagent’s shop - you can go in and

browse and pick up things that really grab your attention, just as you

buy only the magazines that reflect your individual interests. It sounds

good. Apart from one snag - one of the village newsagents has just run

out of shelf space.

The best cable systems in the UK can deliver 48 channels to subscribers.

That sounds like a lot - and, until recently, it was. But with BSkyB

launching an endless stream of new channels, it is not nearly enough.

Twenty new offerings, including a clutch of Granada Sky Broadcasting

channels, are to launch this summer and autumn. Cable operators will

have to make some difficult decisions. Do they ignore the new stations

or axe some of the channels that they already carry to find room for new


Cable has been faced with this sort of dilemma for a while now. But the

problem is certainly getting worse. In the past, many networks carried

foreign-language channels that could be turfed off without much loss of

sleep. Now it is getting close to the bone.

What comes next? Pan-European channels such as CNN and NBC Superchannel?

The irony is that cable was heralded as the force that would make

broadcasting international. That once-promised diversity is surely

turning out to be just more of the same - more Murdoch in this case.

David Cuff, the broadcast director of Initiative Media, points out that

cable is only one way of getting multi-channel TV. ‘The really important

thing is cable’s realisation that it has to offer something different

and distinctive,’ he says. ‘At first, cable operators tried to

replicate what satellite was offering. Channels that do well on

satellite don’t necessarily do well on cable, though. Now they’re trying

to create their own unique selling proposition, so, of course, they are

looking at what channels they should be carrying.’

Cuff thinks that satellite’s growing problem is that it does not

discriminate - it is programme-supply driven, while cable is

increasingly consumer-driven. ‘It’s good to see a clearer difference

between what the two delivery systems have to offer,’ he adds.

Cable owners are studying new research on cable viewing. Ratings will be

an important factor in determining who stays and who goes, but a

channel’s ‘uniqueness’ or distinctive branding will be important too.

The boss of one major cable company comments: ‘We are keen to strengthen

the UK character of our offering. This capacity squeeze will go a long

way to clear a lot of US crap off our networks.’

For the time being, loss of cable won’t be a huge problem for new

channels - access to one and a half million cable homes is lost, but

there are still three and a half million satellite homes available -

unless, of course, you intend to be a cable-only channel.

Robert Ditcham is a founding partner of Rapture TV, a youth-oriented

cable channel due to launch in October. He welcomes the fact that cable

operators are committed to giving their customers the strongest channel

line-up they can. ‘We want them to deliver to the consumer and drive

cable forward,’ he affirms.

‘Channels don’t have a right to access just because they exist. It’s

clear now that repeats and imports don’t work. Cable should be - and

will be - about variety, not me-too channels. Rapture will cater for an

audience that hasn’t been catered for before. That’s obviously going to

be of interest and we believe that we will strengthen any channel line-

up. If you have a strong product, the future is bright. We have a strong