Cable needs leader to bring benefits home

Cable is the least-trumpeted of the digital television platforms, yet in many ways it has the most to offer.

Until last week’s coup by Sebastian Coe in bringing the Olympics to London, 2012 was most notable in the UK as the deadline for digital switchover. If Lord Coe has a bit of time, and is looking for another lost cause to help, he could offer his services – not to the switchover campaign as a whole, but to the cable industry.

Cable has been written off even more times than London’s chances of hosting the games, yet it now stands its best chance of success in a generation. After years in which cable has been a byword for poor marketing and customer service (not to mention huge financial losses), the two remaining companies – NTL and Telewest – have been quietly getting their act together. Soon they are expected to merge and what they need is an inspirational leader to persuade people to forget the past and embrace the future.

The switch from analogue to digital should be the time to do it, because every home in the country will have to make the move. It’s a huge new business opportunity, with the first regions expected to switch in 2008.

Yet cable is the invisible platform as far as the switchover is concerned – metaphorically as well as literally. BSkyB and Freeview have high reputations and are widely seen as the main conversion routes to digital TV. Yet, in the age of broadband, digital cable has great advantages.

“Cable’s unique selling-point cannot be underestimated” says NTL’s chief executive Simon Duffy. “We can offer telephony, television and the internet through a single distribution company, and consumers can buy this at a substantial saving compared with using separate suppliers.”

But cable now has a new USP, which it is starting to market heavily – TV-on-demand. Six months ago this week, NTL and Telewest raised the stakes in their bruising battle with BSkyB by launching the first true video-on-demand services, offering films and – in NTL’s case – music videos, children’s output and BBC programmes. Both companies are now expanding this aspect of their services.

NTL On Demand has extended from Glasgow, where it was launched in January, to Cardiff, Nottingham, Belfast and surrounding areas. About 250,000 customers can now receive it, making it the largest on-demand service outside the US – and more than 1 million films or programmes have been requested.

Viewers now get a choice of 300 movies – with full movie listings and a movie of the week – and the pick of the week’s TV. They can also pause and rewind programmes, offering a real alternative to BSkyB’s highly-praised Sky Plus box (though Sky is fighting back with its own plans for a broadband service). “It’s TV as it’s meant to be” says Shai Weiss, managing director of NTL consumer products.

Telewest, which began with a more limited service, has just launched Teleport to 26,000 customers in Cheltenham and Gloucester, adding TV programmes such as EastEnders and Casualty to the film menu.

A new report from Screen Digest hails true video-on-demand as one of several factors that are helping cable to compete on even terms with satellite TV: “New technology has come together with re-invigorated balance sheets to create a positive outlook for the European cable industry.”

NTL has been wary of trumpeting its On Demand service till now – it has had an unwelcome reputation for over-claiming. Nor is it saying too much about its improved customer service. The Guardian has reported a sharp drop in complaints to its Jobs & Money team about NTL’s service since the company pared its 20-odd billing systems and 14 call centres down to three, but the occasional rogue story can pop up and bite.

Newspapers recently reported a Teesside court case in which an angry NTL customer, who claimed he had been kept hanging on the phone for an hour, hijacked its recorded helpline service, replacing the polite message with a string of four-letter words. To NTL’s frustration, magistrates let him off, saying his phrases didn’t reach the “grossly offensive” level required for a successful prosecution.

Cable won’t shed its old reputation easily, but it’s now doing many of the right things. That’s why – when the merger happens – it needs an inspiring leader to take the fight to its competitors.

It won’t be Lord Coe, but cable can learn a lot from the 2012 bid experience.

The London Olympic victory was an astonishing achievement and Coe led an immensely high-calibre team, not least in the marketing and communications. The bid’s chief executive, Keith Mills, creator of Air Miles and Nectar; along with Mike Lee, former head of communications at UEFA and the Premier League, persuaded a sceptical media and indifferent public. They developed the “inspiration” strategy and made sure it was rooted in reality, paying huge attention to detail.

As cable raises its game, it too should be setting its sights on 2012.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC news

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