BDB launch date in doubt as Grabiner move is delayed

British Digital Broadcasting yesterday confirmed that it had poached Stephen Grabiner, currently in charge of United News & Media's national and regional newspapers, to be its chief executive. But the digital broadcaster's planned autumn launch looked increasingly unattainable when United declared that Mr Grabiner would not be released from his existing job until January 1999. Peter Thal Larsen reports.

Last night, a fully-fledged tug of war had broken out between BDB and United News over Mr Grabiner's services. After BDB had confirmed the appointment, United News announced that Mr Grabiner would be staying on for a year to help revitalise the Express titles and the group's advertising periodicals. Lord Stevens, chairman of United News, said: "We are pleased that he will remain with us to see through the next phase in the investment programme at the Express."

However, Mr Grabiner, who has only been at United News for 18 months, was less emphatic. "I am contractually obliged to work out my 12-month contract," he said.

BDB would not comment, but industry sources said the broadcaster was confident that Mr Grabiner would be released from his contract early. This may involve BDB paying United News compensation in return for allowing him to go. However, no negotiations are currently taking place between the two companies.

The view that United News might be willing to let Mr Grabiner go early was reinforced when it promoted two employees to be managing director and deputy managing director of the Express. However, a United News spokesman said the appointments were unrelated to Mr Grabiner's departure.

Industry analysts said that a delay in Mr Grabiner's arrival at BDB would scupper any remaining hopes the broadcaster had of meeting its October launch target date. "I would say the obstacles they face are probably insurmountable," said one leading expert.

BDB already faces a huge challenge in ordering sufficient volumes of the set top boxes needed to decode the digital signal, and will have to retune some older television sets which face interference from the digital signal.

But Mr Grabiner's presence is seen as crucial to the success of the marketing campaign which will precede BDB's launch. Although he has no experience of television - his previous job was as managing director of the Telegraph newspaper titles - Mr Grabiner's flair for marketing is believed to have been a key factor in his appointment.

Missing its autumn launch would be a disaster for BDB, since it would not give the broadcaster a chance to build up its profile in time for the key Christmas selling period. That would give BSkyB, which is planning to launch its digital satellite service in June, a clear run at the market for new subscribers.

However, Mr Grabiner said that BDB had already achieved a great deal. "I'm surprised how far they have got on the infrastructure and technology," he said. "It's not as if I'll be starting from scratch.

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