THIS WEEK: MEDIA SPEAK; Things to view in Denver when you are in television

Things are looking bleak for ITV. At a recent away day they looked into their crystal ball and did not much like the future - increased competition as far as the eye could see and little sign of real growth in revenue. To add to the hard-done-by feel, the BBC is unaccountably showing signs of life. Yet the shape of the threat to ITV, the one channel battling against the many, is very difficult to visualise at the moment.

Things are looking bleak for ITV. At a recent away day they looked into

their crystal ball and did not much like the future - increased

competition as far as the eye could see and little sign of real growth

in revenue. To add to the hard-done-by feel, the BBC is unaccountably

showing signs of life. Yet the shape of the threat to ITV, the one

channel battling against the many, is very difficult to visualise at the

moment.



It is much easier to talk glibly about hundreds of television channels,

on Sky or elsewhere, than work out what it actually means for

broadcasters and marketers. One of the best ways to find out is to take

a trip to Denver to see the activities of John Malone’s

Telecommunications Inc. The group of TCI companies in cable, satellite

and programming could be worth as much as dollars 35bn (pounds 23bn),

and new companies that Malone spins off every year or two, such as TCI

International, could each be worth more than the entire ITV system. But

it is at TCI’s National Digital Television Centre on the outskirts of

Denver, with the Rockies in the background, that you get the full

flavour of the likely future of TV. In a building the size of seven

football pitches, programmes are made - there are four studios - and

channels are edited. In a master control room a handful of technicians

monitor the quality of the 113 channels currently being up-linked to

satellites from the centre. In one room less than half a dozen people

are responsible for the packaging and transmission of no less than 13

movie channels.



At the Encore movie network there are entire channels devoted to love

stories, westerns, mystery, action, true stories etc. The boast is that

if you have the patience and the time you will eventually see every

movie that has ever been made. There is even a preview channel showing

extracts of what is on all the other channels, so you never have to

watch an entire programme if you don’t want to. Such a channel would

obviously be a smart place to insert ads.



Not far away, a large room is being prepared for the next phase. It will

be the nerve centre for HITS - Headend in the Sky. It is here in October

that TCI will launch its first digital cable service of around 125

channels. There will be 60 channels of near video on demand, or, as the

Americans plan to call it, ‘enhanced pay-per-view’. Not long after, TCI

will launch a cable modem which will offer Internet access at up to 700

times current speed. And at an Educational Technology Centre in the same

TCI building they are already integrating conventional TV pictures with

information from the Internet.



John Birt has already made the pilgrimage to Denver. It might be a good

idea if the ITV chief executives pulled themselves away from navel

gazing in the Channel Islands to have a look at something more

inspiring.



Raymond Snoddy is Financial Times media correspondent



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