Media: Mathew Horsman on the growing market for `template television'

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Among the most innovative structures for any media company today is the one pioneered by the oddly named Flextech. By packaging "themed" channels - some of them jointly owned by US and UK partners - Flextech makes available to pay-TV viewers an impressive array of specialist programming, ranging from soft sex (Playboy) to hard news (European Business News) to full coverage of the day's debates in the House of Commons on the Parliamentary Channel.

The library of channels has been built up cleverly, usually in partnership with other broadcasters. For instance, Flextech has a stake in UK Gold and UK Living, the former in league with the BBC and Pearson, the media giant. Having developed its 13 channels, Flextech, 50 per cent owned by giant TCI, the US cable operator, is now seeking to buy some of its partners out, consolidating its hold on what is likely to be a key growth market - subscription television.

There are two broad views about how to make serious money out of the media revolution. The first, the "integrationist" approach, is favoured by the really big media barons. They like to own the infrastructure and the programming; both the content and the means of carriage. The obvious attraction is the ability to guarantee distribution of your own content. But smaller fish can't compete with the likes of Disney-ABC (stellar programming and a US network all under one roof) or Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation (film, satellite TV, terrestrial TV). For them, the only secure way forward is to choose a niche.

Flextech has done precisely that. If its plans to take majority control of its various channels bear fruit, it will have an enviable engine to drive future growth.

That revolution is moving at such a pace that no one can confidently predict its future shape. Will we be watching broadcast television in 20 years time, or will all our entertainment and educational needs be piped down the telephone line to a mega screen? Will digital satellite or digital cable carry signals to our homes and allow us to use all the interactive services promised by the futurists?

The answers to these questions fascinate most of us. But in a very important commercial sense, Flextech's chief executive, wheeler-dealer Roger Luard, doesn't need to care. Whatever the "platform" for programming, the rights holder will benefit. When we have 200 channels of digital television, there will be a desperate appetite for content, and the companies with strong libraries and fresh programmes will be winners. When the broadcasting environment becomes so fragmented that specialist, thematic channels begin to dominate, it will be the Flextechs that cash in.

The Flextech model has been used by TCI in France, as well, under the operating company Multithmatiques and in Asia and South America. When the pay-TV revolution truly kicks in, probably with the introduction of digital TV on a wide scale, then TCI's little Flextechs will be front and centre.

Flextech has never made any money in its TV incarnation, at least not out of core operations. Expansion has been too constant and evolution too rapid to escape the red ink. But that is how Luard prefers it. "If it stays still, I'll sell it," he says. "If it moves, I'll buy it."

But that does not mean the company hasn't attracted the interest of other broadcasters. A consolidation of the whole pay-TV market in the UK has already been launched, and Flextech is at its roots. The company has already moved to buy out minority stakes in the Family Channel and is negotiating for a bigger slice of both UK Gold and UK Living. Flextech may even do a deal with BSkyB, Rupert Murdoch's satellite broadcaster, which offers 28 channels in its own multi-package, or Viacom, operators of thematic channels such as Nickelodeon and Paramount.

The focussed approach of Flextech is being replicated. Pearson, the media, publishing and leisure company, has settled on television programming as its favoured business, and it has been steadily buying up programming libraries and production companies since its purchase of Thames Television in 1991. Granted, it has hedged its bets a bit, through its stake in Channel 5, Britain's newest terrestrial channel. But the really big money so far has been spent on programming, which Pearson can sell to anybody - cable and satellite companies, pay-TV broadcasters, the BBC, ITV or its own Channel 5.

Even better, the product can be sold again and again. We may tire of repeats of The Bill this year; but Pearson need only put those programmes on ice, and revive them when the public mood has swung back. It has also bought "concept" TV rights, allowing it to produce shows in different countries based on a single format - "template television".

Dorling Kinderlsey, the publishers of books and CD-Roms, is similarly angling its efforts on creating content, irrespective of the distribution platform. Its lavishly illustrated books are being produced for the CD- Rom market for huge profits. But if another distribution system comes along - online delivery, for example - then DK is happy to adjust. It makes money in any event, just by leveraging its ownership of the rights into as many new markets as the technologists can envisage.

Neither company is likely soon to compete with the global media giants. But nor will they be bypassed by advances in technology. They are both splendidly placed to win from the undoubted truth behind two tired cliches: "content is king", and "money for old rope".

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