To boldly go where many others have gone before: Virgin 1 shoots for victory

The channel launches tomorrow, with 'Star Trek' taking the fight to Sky 1. But where's the warp speed? ask Andrew Murray-Watson and Joy Lo Dico
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The Independent Online

It was a typical Sir Richard Branson publicity event. Held at his Oxfordshire mansion, the launch of Virgin Media's Virgin 1 entertainment channel had celebrities, top bands (The Enemy staged a gig), a fairground and lavish food and drink.

What it didn't have, at least until halfway through the day, was many journalists. A coach load of media scribblers on the way to the party were caught up in a massive traffic jam and arrived two hours late.

And as the rain poured down, the fairground became a washout. Sir Richard dutifully plonked himself in a bumper car and smiled for the cameras, but somehow it didn't seem his heart was in it.

Journalists were invited up to his mill house for a round-table discussion. It turned out to be a rectangular table, in what looked like heavily varnished oak. Sir Richard sat at one end, in his black fleece and jeans, and held forth about his amazing new channel. But actually he looked bored – tired of trotting out the same old arguments against Sky, offering up a few blunt insults against his rivals. "I don't watch Sky," he said. And on the coach hold-up: "It's amazing what our competitors will do to try and stop us." It was hardly the fighting talk one would usually expect of him.

The channel itself is billing itself as "original" but its line-up includes some easy sells like Seinfeld and Star Trek, the latter of which has been on an endless loop on various channels for years. It may appeal to Trekkies, but it is impossible to disguise that this is cheap programming, bought in bulk to pad out Virgin 1's schedule.

But the channel does have new content, never seen before on these shores. In particular, Virgin 1 is trumpeting The Riches, starring Eddie Izzard, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a big-budget spin-off from the Terminator movies.

There are, though, no proven audience winners. Virgin 1 has been created to compete against Sky 1 and the satellite channel is home to smash hits with devoted followings, such as Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica and The Simpsons.

Sir Richard was not disclosing the budget for the new channel, although one report placed it at £40m for the forthcoming year. That looks steep, given the initial programme line-up.

From Thursday's launch event, you would be for-given for thinking that Virgin 1 is Sir Richard's baby. But it isn't. He has a 13 per cent stake in Virgin Media and receives a licence payment from the company for its use of the Virgin brand. He is contractually obliged to do promotional work but that is where the relationship ends despite attempts to portray Sir Richard as the company's figurehead.

There are other areas where the Virgin 1 proposition looks shaky. In his press conference on Thursday, Sir Richard was not giving any clues as to target audience figures, only saying he intended to beat Sky 1 figures. Claudia Rosencrantz, Virgin Media's director of programming, and John Webb, TV managing editor, had to intercede to stress they did have targets for individual programmes but wouldn't release them.

The public ambition to beat Sky 1 for viewers is a clever one, as the target should not be too hard to reach. Virgin 1 will be shown on cable, satellite and on Freeview; its rival is only available to Sky subscribers. And Sky 1 is performing badly: the latest figures, for the five weeks to 2 September, show its total audience share had slipped to only 0.9 per cent. This time last year it had 1.6 per cent.

"Sky 1 is not exactly shining. It's not something millions of people are watching. Its figures are a third or half of what it expected to get," Sir Richard said.

Where Virgin 1 will succeed is in fracturing the market further and so increasing the pressure on its rival. The new channel will go in the slot vacated by Sky 1 when Virgin Media refused to pay the satellite company an increased amount to carry it on cable. Since then, the two groups have engaged in a running verbal spat which culminated in Virgin suing Sky for anti-competitive behaviour.

"If you have a gun held to your head, you are likely to get a gun held to your head a second time round. The Competition Commission is trying to decide whether it was anti-competitive. We believe the approach was tantamount to blackmail, so we decided not to give in," said Sir Richard.

Yet observers remain unconvinced of the merits of Virgin 1. Toby Syfret at Enders, the media and telecoms analysts, said: "Virgin will have to spend a lot more money on Virgin 1 if it really wants to compete."

Which might be tricky. Virgin Media has been the subject of various takeover approaches from private equity firms, and is reluctant to spend heavily as it protects its balance sheet.

However, Virgin 1 has already netted two key sponsors in Vauxhall and PC World, while British Airways has bought a slot in the first ad break, which will fall during a programme called Penis Envy. Whether Sky looks on in envy when Virgin 1 goes live tomorrow is another matter.

So who's got the best shows?

Sky 1 has shown three series of the critically acclaimed 'Battlestar Galactica'. A fourth series will be ready to air early next year, with Sky hot favourite to bag the rights

Sky 1 is home to the new series of 'The Simpsons', the US-made cartoon that has been going strong on both sides of the Atlantic for more than a decade

The more baffling the plot, the more viewers get drawn into the strange world of 'Lost'. Series four is on the way. Will it make any sense? Probably not

'Star Trek' has already been screened on various channels, but Virgin hopes the show's devoted following will tune in to boost its channel's ratings

Virgin is holding out high hopes for 'The Riches', starring Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard. But can it grab enough viewers to make it a money-spinner?

'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia' is an edgy and lauded US sitcom starring Danny DeVito. Virgin hopes its popularity will be mirrored in the UK

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