Virgin 1’s success will centre on the strength of its programming

Virgin Media’s launch of its new channel Virgin 1, on Freeview, Sky and cable this week, has given advertisers yet another well-branded outlet.

Its arrival has been welcomed by marketers, as it will exert further downward pressure on airtime prices.

Even so, some wonder how effectively Virgin 1 will compete with established Freeview giants, such as ITV, Channel 4, Five and the BBC, with their power to cross-promote their Freeview channels and target V1’s top shows

The man behind the V1 launch, former Lever Brothers marketer Johnnie Webb – who made the jump to television-station marketing and is now managing director of Virgin Media TV – believes V1’s strong attraction to men will help it fill a big gap on Freeview.

Male perspective
“Freeview is a platform that over-delivers for women, especially for older women,” he says. “Males are under-served. There’s hardly any sport and general entertainment. There is not a lot on Freeview for men to really own.” 

With an estimated budget of £40m, V1 has bought US series, such as The Riches, starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, and is planning to introduce sports news programming. Other content includes Terminator-inspired drama The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and home-grown programmes such as tongue-in-cheek documentary Penis Envy and a hard-hitting crime investigation series fronted by Rageh Omar.

Such programmes are embodied in the channel’s slogan: “No soaps, no makeovers, no nonsense – just proper telly.” Webb adds that in its previous guise as Flextech, the company had a strong pedigree in building cable entertainment channels, such as Living and Bravo.

Webb says he is aiming for V1 and Living to become top ten TV channels by the time of digital switchover in 2012. At the same time, Martin Plant, sales director at IDS – which is selling airtime for the channel – says: “We are forecasting a channel as big as Living, potentially bigger. The Freeview element helps the channel immensely.” He adds that Living gets between a 1.7% and 2% share of commercial audiences.

Some point out that channels such as ITV4 and More 4 have already sought to cater for the male market, and that ultimately the success of V1 will be down to the strength of its programming. Virgin 1 will also have to promote the programmes with a hefty marketing budget to attract viewers to the channel.

Other stations have the advantage of being able to promote programmes on sub-channels through their main terrestrial channels. Starcom TV manager Chris Bailes says: “One thing ITV and C4 can do well is cross-promotion – that is key. I don’t think Virgin is in a position to do that, so it needs stronger programming. Cross-promotion is really strong for others and they are going to increase that.” 

Upping the stakes
Meanwhile, Andy Roberts, founder of brand consultancy Village Green, points to ITV2’s massive promotional budget behind the new Billie Piper series The Secret Diary of a Call Girl. He sees this as part of ITV’s strategy to take viewers from Five, and believes it demonstrates that the stakes for Freeview channels are getting higher in the run-up to digital switchover.

“I wonder how the programmes will bounce off the Virgin brand name. Virgin has put its name on utilities and services, but now it is on something that is far more polarising in opinion, because it is carrying content,” says Roberts.

Some see V1 as merely a response to the crisis caused by the removal of Sky One from Virgin Media, following the spat over carriage charges between the two. But Webb insists that the channel is a logical step for the company, as it is essential to be big on Freeview for VMTV to keep growing.

But the only important issue for viewers will be how alluring the programmes are on V1 compared to other channels.

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