Outlook: ONdigital

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The Independent Online
STEPHEN GRABINER must know what it's like to be a game show contestant. For the past few months the chief executive of ONdigital, the pay-TV service that will hit our screens in November, has been taking part in a particularly gruelling contest called Challenge Rupert.

The concept is simple. A plucky contestant is charged with setting up a broadcasting company from scratch to take on the mighty BSkyB. But first his previous employer refuses to let him leave. Then he is given inferior programmes and less cash to play with. To top it all off, he has to rely on a reluctant BSkyB to supply him with key sports and movie channels - something he only achieves with the help of numerous writs.

Given the odds against him, Mr Grabiner has done rather well. Standing in a studio at London Weekend Television yesterday, he put a convincing case for why people should choose ONdigital. Don't blight your house with a satellite dish or dig up your garden to lay cable - ONdigital will plug straight into your existing aerial. If you can't get it to work, they'll send out an engineer, and even give you a new aerial if you need one. You can pick any six channels you want from a list of twelve, for just pounds 7.99 a month. And you'll be allowed to change them any time you like.

The hope is that this approach will be sufficiently appealing to the dish-hating technophobes of Middle England to give Carlton and Granada, ONdigital's shareholders, the three or so million subscribers they need to make a return on their investment.

Unfortunately, this may be an offer consumers feel they can refuse. If it's channels your after you could have a much broader choice from Sky for more or less the same price. For interactive services and internet access, you're better off with the cable operators.

All Mr Grabiner has done so far is drag ONdigital to the starting line, ensuring that it does not fall too far behind Sky in the initial battle for subscribers. That in itself may be no mean achievement, but what ONdigital really needs is more compelling, original content if it is to be more than an also-ran in the digital race. The nightmare is that it ends up like British Satellite Broadcasting, its ill- fated predecessor in the Marco Polo building south of Chelsea Bridge. That company was eventually subsumed by Sky.