Forget about Half-Life – the game that has been dominating the family PC in recent weeks – or The Simpsons Cartoon Workshop CD-Rom, which we picked up for &£2.49 with the Mail on Sunday last month.
The game that took over the PC last weekend was the “Home Designer” feature on UK Style’s newly launched website (www.ukstyle.tv). It lets you design your own room, choose the colour of the walls and floor, and add sofas, chairs, mirrors, lights, tables and so on.
I’m not sure that we really entered into the spirit of it – we crammed half a dozen sofas on top of each other, and catapulted the table into mid-air where it hung precariously alongside the chandelier and a magic carpet. Harry Potter eat your heart out.
But the fact that my kids didn’t take it seriously doesn’t mean that the website – and the Home Designer feature in particular – will not be a big success. My kids are not the target market, and it’s clear that UK Style and its offshoots are connecting with their real market – ABC1 women and housewives – remarkably effectively.
UK Style is the homes and gardens channel of UKTV, the joint venture between the BBC and Flextech, the content arm of Telewest. Like the other UKTV channels, it relies largely on the huge BBC archive, which gives it access to such hits as Changing Rooms and Ground Force. It also commissions its own productions.
Without fanfare, UK Style has quietly become the third most-popular channel in multichannel homes (excluding the terrestrials), behind Sky One and UK Gold. It has doubled its audience share in the past year – at a time of increasing competition – and now claims 2.2 per cent of multichannel viewing, rising to 3.9 per cent among ABC1 women. Because the number of digital satellite homes has grown substantially in the past year, that increased share translates into 6.3 million viewers a month.
Perhaps more importantly, a large proportion of its audience is very loyal. “A quarter of UK Style’s ABC1 women viewers watch for more than 30 minutes at a time, and over half look at the channel once a week,” says Julia Weston, UKTV’s marketing director. “Some of our viewers watch the channel for 12 to 15 hours a week.”
UK Style’s biggest venture in cementing viewer loyalty is its “Style File” – a ring binder that fills up, over the year, with colour pages devoted to homes, gardens and food and drink. It was launched last February, and already more than 40,000 have been sold – initially at &£2.99, now at &£3.99. Purchasers get the binder and four packs of pages a year, giving ideas and tips, programme information and offers. Editorial content is provided by magazine journalists at BBC Worldwide.
Having signed up this loyal group of viewers UKTV is now spending a great deal of money finding out more about them, with a series of telephone surveys followed up by focus groups.
“The Style File is a heavy investment and we wanted to find out whether it lived up to people’s expectations and was felt to be worth the money,” says Weston. “We wanted to know if people used it or put it on a shelf and forgot it.
“The results were impressive: 82 per cent of respondents said it was exactly what they wanted and 74 per cent carried it round with them, or knew where it was in the house. Eighty-one per cent had updated it with two packs of pages.”
But what of the 18 per cent who weren’t so impressed? “Most of those said it had been smaller than they expected,” says Weston. “It was the size of a Filofax, and in our TV promotions we hadn’t made that clear. So in February this year, we made it bigger – A5-sized – and glossier.”
When UKTV did the first wave of research, 20 per cent of respondents had access to the Internet. Six months later, the figure was 52 per cent, of whom almost half had made a purchase over the Web. “These are ABC1 women who have money and want to spend it,” Weston concludes.
That finding led to the launch of the UK Style website, pages from which can be printed off and added to the Style File. Now Weston is seeking to capitalise on both ventures by attracting sponsorship and boosting ad revenue on the channel itself. “Just as companies like Nike and Coke expect to be on MTV, I’d like to get to the stage where Homebase, Ikea and Marks & Spencer are saying to their agencies ‘Why aren’t we on UK Style?’,” she says.
“Style File and the website are great sponsorship opportunities. In Style File we’ll be signing up genre sponsors for the gardens, homes and food sections, and I think companies such as Ikea and M&S will leap at the chance to do versions of Home Designer on the website.”
Now the idea is coming full circle and Style File is to become a programme. And UK Style’s success has led to UKTV launching a new channel this autumn – UK Food. That’s brought vocal opposition from Carlton, which recently rebranded Carlton Food Network as Taste, in conjunction with Sainsbury’s. It sees this threatened by a channel which has exclusive access to the licence fee-funded programmes of the BBC.
That’s a debate for another occasion. In the meantime, won’t UK Food – with programmes from Jamie Oliver, Delia Smith, Rick Stein and the rest – simply cannibalise the Style audience? Dick Emery, UKTV’s chief executive, says not: “The success of UK Style really spurred us on – and UK Food is an obvious extension because only seven per cent of the programming on Style is food programming.”
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News