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Branson vs Murdoch: Inexperienced Virgin takes on old pro

Virgin Media has spent a few quid on its marketing campaign with Uma Thurman, but will its cable service really give rivals llke Sky a run for their money?

Last week, amid a blaze of publicity, NTL and Telewest vanished from broadcasting and were replaced by a new business, Virgin Media. The whole enchilada has now got a much slicker package, graced by seductive advertising featuring Uma Thurman, as well as the marketing savvy of a bearded billionaire you may have heard of.

Virgin is positioning itself right in the way of Sky's PVR system Sky+. In fact, it's even gone so far as to pick a name that isn't a million miles away from it: V+. Virgin now claims to offer a better service than Sky+, too -- its high-definition content is provided for no extra charge, while Sky charges an additional £10 a month to let you watch the same content in better quality. Virgin, however, only has one HD channel at the moment, a fairly limited offering from the BBC.

This is a bit of a shame -- a nice bit of high-definition content will help to sell the product to early adopters who are struggling to find enough content to fill up their 50-inch plasmas. Of course, it's not really a big surprise that there aren't more HD channels on Virgin Media -- so much of the most attractive high-definition material available has already been bought by Sky. Programmes like Lost, 24 and Battlestar Galactica are all being screened on Sky One.

TV shows are often tied up in complex agreements limiting them to specific channels, but the same isn't true of pay-per-view movies. Yet although Virgin's advertising makes a big deal about the wide range of pay-per-view movies on offer, and it's a pretty good selection, high-definition movies on pay-per-view from Virgin are few and far between -- only a handful were on offer last time we checked.

The one area where Virgin will win over Sky is in its ability to offer video on-demand as well as very high-speed broadband. Virgin is also reworking its video on-demand service into a hybrid of traditional broadcasting and on-demand content. Virgin Central will offer viewers a series of programmes: once they select a show, they will be offered a choice of watching any one of a selection of episodes. There are also rumours that Virgin's 10MB broadband will soon become 50MB, which may also be attractive to heavy data users.

There's a lot of promise in the Virgin offering, but so far it's been more sizzle than steak. We'll be watching Branson (and Uma) very closely over the coming months to see how they fare. -IM