Virgin poised for another foray into TV

Richard Branson whose Virgin group failed to win the new Channel 5 franchise, is poised for another bite at British television, according to company insiders.

The man charged with spearheading the company's push into cable, satellite and television programming is Jeremy Fox, key strategist behind Virgin's failed Channel 5 bid, whose contract with Virgin has been renewed, it emerged last night.

The renewal will fuel speculation that Richard Branson's airlines-to- cola conglomerate intends to play a role in the development of cable and satellite television in the UK, despite its bitter disappointment following the award of the Channel 5 licence to a consortium run by Pearson and MAI, Lord Hollick's media and financial services company.

Virgin Communications, the publishing and multimedia arm run by Robert Devereux, would not comment on the news. But sources close to Virgin confirmed the renewed appointment, saying that plans to expand into television were "at a very early stage". Virgin has already invested in independent production, notably Rapido, the Anglo-French joint venture.

Mr Fox was intimately involved in the Virgin TV Channel 5 bid, and spearheaded Virgin's efforts to overturn the award before the High Court early this year.

He is also a senior executive at Channel Nine, the Australian network owned by multimillionaire Kerry Packer. It is believed that Mr Fox will continue to work for Mr Packer despite the renewal of his Virgin TV contract.

At Channel Nine, he worked with Bruce Gyngell, the former head of TV- AM, who returned from Australia last year to become chief executive of Yorkshire-Tyne Tees Television.

Mr Fox, who has been a successful independent producer, was also involved in the aborted 1992 efforts to get Channel 5 off the ground, in a consortium initially backed by, among others, Conrad Black's Telegraph Group, and dubbed the Entertainment Channel.

He then spent several months attempting to get a UK version of the popular US tabloid magazine television programme, Entertainment Tonight, on to the screen.

Virgin's Channel 5 blueprint, which had the backing of ITV company HTV, Paramount Television, and Philips, the consumer products giant, featured entertainment, spot news and no sport, in an effort to cash in on the young and fashionable audience already associated with the Virgin brand name.

Mr Branson is believed to be convinced there is a market for the Virgin brand in television. A themed channel on cable or satellite is one option, although the company is thought to be prepared to produce programmes for existing broadcasters.

Virgin has already successfully launched a radio network and put in a bid for Reed Consumer Books, the publishing group. It is also looking at multimedia opportunities, using its existing retail operations as a springboard.

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