ITV poaches digital chief to mastermind UK's first free video-on-demand service

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The Independent Online

ITV is weeks away from launching the UK's first mass-market broadband television service after poaching the woman responsible for the digital revamp at the Barclay brothers' Telegraph group.

Annelies van den Belt will head ITV's new online service, which will let viewers download all of the broadcaster's programmes, heralding the end of prime-time TV. She starts work next Monday, the same day that Michael Grade takes up his role as executive chairman.

ITV is vying to be the first terrestrial TV station to offer a parallel video-on-demand service for free. It plans to launch the new service, which will make all of the programmes shown on its four channels available to download either live over the internet or during a 30-day catch-up window, in late March. Its proposition, available via itv.com, differs from Channel 4, which charges viewers for the broadband TV service it launched last month, and the BBC, which still offers only a handful of programmes on its iPlayer service.

The advent of broadband TV has opened up a new front in the war between broadcasters, cable companies and even telecoms groups. Yesterday BSkyB unveiled its own new video-on-demand service that will be available via its Sky+ boxes later this year. And the BBC hopes to add to the content on iPlayer once the BBC Trust has completed a review of the service. Even BT has muscled in on the market with BT Vision, which will offer a mix of Freeview channels and paid-for content via the internet.

Ms Van den Belt said ITV's new broadband portal would have the edge because it would be the easiest to use. "It will be at the heart of the ITV offering," she said. The broadband media player will be on every web page, letting viewers watch a programme with just one click, she added.

ITV has been experimenting with broadband TV since October 2003, when it started trials in Brighton and Hastings. The crux for a national launch was waiting for PC owners to switch from dial-up internet connections to broadband, which has made the project commercially viable. Advertisers will pay for a brief slot before a programme starts and for banner ads on the web pages, keeping the service free for viewers.

Before joining the Telegraph group in August 2005 as its new media director, Ms Van den Belt spent five years at News International, where she launched Times Online. Two other new media executives are also joining itv.com's team.

Separately BSkyB and BT announced two milestones that will accelerate the take-up of video-on-demand services. Sky said more than 2 million homes now have its Sky+ boxes. And BT said it will sign up its 10 millionth broadband customer this week, twice the number it was targeting by the end of 2006.

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