Media: The only way to get people excited about cable is to make it easy and attractive to sign up

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There is something oddly pathetic about the cable industry's efforts to emerge from under the shadow of Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB - pathetic in that endearing way puppies have of getting themselves hopelessly tied up in a roll of loo paper.

Cable has been fighting on two fronts ever since it began to develop its network in earnest four years ago. On the telephony front, it has had to battle with BT, the dominant telecoms provider. On the programming side, its efforts to date to provide cable-exclusive content to attract viewers have been dwarfed by the movies-and-sport combination put together by Murdoch and his well-heeled, monopolistic minions at Sky.

The engineering side of the job has been quite successful. Lots of cable has been laid, switching equipment installed, and set-top boxes delivered to homes. But the take-up has been lousy, with only one in five households passed by cable taking the TV offering (the telephony product has fared better).

The real problem has been a lack of willingness at the main cable companies to work co-operatively with each other and with other media companies that have an interest in developing a true competitor to BT on phones and BSkyB on pay-television.

It is not enough merely to trumpet the high-calibre fibre-optic links that cable offers. Or the fact that it is the only truly interactive transmission system. Or even that cable is a reasonably cost-effective way of getting BSkyB's programming, a few "cable-exclusive" channels and cheap phone calls.

The only way to get people excited about cable is to make it easy and attractive to sign up. And that can't happen on a franchise-by-franchise basis: there has to be a national cable offer, effectively promoted, just as Sky is promoted across the country.

The individual cable operators have been far too precious about their business. Even though they don't compete (if you want to subscribe, you are obliged to take the cable service offered in your franchise area), the companies seldom work well together.

That must stop.

Of course, the point has been made before. This past week witnessed Cable World, the annual bash of the struggling industry. Three keynote speakers stood up to give their views, and it can't have been pleasant, in the main, to hear the strident messages. All three - Oftel's director-general Don Cruickshank, TCI International's Adam Singer and Mirror Group's David Montgomery - took the industry to task for its woeful lack of focus, its strategic disarray and its pitiable inability to co-operate where it counts.

Well, all right, the messages were couched politely, and delivered in code. But no one could mistake the intention.

Consider Cruickshank's call for a "national cable brand that is universally recognised and accepted as denoting a product that people trust and want to buy." Cruickshank warned that while the industry dawdles, "the competitors are running down the field with the ball".

It is bad enough now, in the analogue universe, where BSkyB and the cable industry both carry (or will soon carry) about 50 channels. But what happens when Murdoch's digital satellite service is launched next autumn, especially if he gets its hands on Pearson, the media company that makes quality British programming, for which BSkyB is considering an audacious "break- up" bid that could queer cable's programming pitch even further?

TCI's Singer, the man who oversees TCI's British presence (including its 51 per cent holding in cable and satellite TV packager Flextech) put the point bluntly at Cable World: "If the [cable] industry is not ready, and Sky ends up with a de facto exclusive window in which their new digital boxes are perceived as the sexy, 200-channel technology du jour, then cable will be reduced to the slogan: `Remember us: 50 channels and a cheap phone call."

Montgomery (whose Mirror Group owns 46 per cent of The Independent) went even further, suggesting the creation of a national "umbrella" company to run all the consumer elements of British cable. The company would raise pounds 700m from investors and oversee all marketing, promotion, programme development and the like.

Crucially, the new entity would also negotiate with BSkyB on behalf of all operators, to secure the best terms for the carriage of Sky programming.

Its profit would be derived from taking equity stakes in all the cable operators, and banking on benefiting from the overall growth in subscriptions that ought to flow from the unified marketing efforts.

Montgomery also suggests that newspaper groups (like his own) be partners in developing cable's profile. As Murdoch discovered, there is great mileage to be had from the cross-promotion of television and newspapers.

The plan is radical, and probably won't bear fruit. But the ideas it encompasses are important for cable's future. Montgomery warned the Cable World delegates that "the choice is simple: "Sign up to this new force and make the most of the billions already sunk into British cable or remain in the doldrums and see your investment swept away by the sudden and savage winds" from BSkyB?

Cable need not soldier on alone. The ITV companies and the BBC, which both have reason to support a second force in pay-television, ought to work closely with the industry. What better way to give cable a leg-up than to offer cable-only digital channels from the broadcasting talents of the BBC or Yorkshire Television or Channel 4? For a start, the new BBC pay-TV channels (developed with TCI's Flextech) might be offered on a cable-exclusive basis. That might sell some subscriptions and deal a blow to Sky's digital package at a single stroke.