BT knocks on 'Big Brother' door for TV venture

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BT underlined its ambition to become a significant player in the television market yesterday by signing a deal for programming and interactive content with Endemol, the producer of Big Brother.

The dominant fixed-line telecoms player launches its television service this autumn, as the market moves increasingly quickly towards "convergence". Endemol is famous for producing programmes that get viewers actively involved, especially through voting.

Dan Marks, the chief executive of television services at BT, said: "The significance of the Endemol deal is that it indicates the importance of the interactive element in our programming."

Across the communications industry, fixed-line and mobile phone services are coming together with broadband and television, as companies start to offer consumers a one-stop shop for their communications and entertainment needs. NTL, which provides television, fixed-line and broadband over its cable network, is in talks to acquire Virgin Mobile. And BSkyB, the leading pay-TV company, acquired the broadband provider Easynet late last year.

BT, the owner of the leading fixed-line national network, will build on its existing strengths by offering a service differentiated by its video on-demand programming. The company will offer a more sophisticated version of the Freeview digital terrestrial service by providing a broadband connection with it allowing consumers to choose from a large selection of extra programmes at will.

Significantly, there will be no monthly subscription charge. Freeview channels are free and will still be delivered through an aerial. Customers will pay for "on-demand" material from BT over the broadband line. It will also offer "catch-up TV" - popular programmes such as soap operas that viewers may have missed, some of which will be available free of charge.

Mr Marks said: "We are allowing people true choice. People don't have to pay for a bundle of channels with us. They can take any items and pay only for that item. This gives people pay-TV without the traditional level of commitment."

The BT service promises to make Freeview an even more attractive option over consumer television subscription services such as Sky or NTL. It was announced last week that the FilmFour movie channel would also be joining the line-up of channels on Freeview.

Endemol, which is led by Peter Bazalgette in the UK, has pioneered the development of interactive television formats, where a telecoms link can be best exploited for activities such as voting, betting or buying. However, no details were provided yesterday on what sort of content it will supply BT.

Peter Cowley, the director of digital media for Endemol UK, said: "This deal with BT underlines our commitment to remaining at the forefront of digital media and developing new ways of entertaining people."

BT has content agreements with BBC Worldwide, Paramount and Warner Music Group, National Geographic Channel and the children's television players HIT Entertainment and Nelvana. BT will unveil more deals this year as it prepares to launch its new television service.

The BT service will also offer an 80-hour personal video recorder. The BT box required for this is likely to involve a one-off cost of less than £100.

BT's chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, said recently the company was "not taking Sky on in the territory of sports and movies". He said BT was "unlikely" to bid for the rights to screen live Premiership football, which will be auctioned this year.