Julian Clover on the departure of Virgin Media CEO Steve Burch.
Being the head of a UK cable is a little bit like being the minister for Northern Ireland during the 1970s. You know that this difficult period of office is not likely to last for long and that that funding from the US looms large.
Stephen Burch, the former Comcast executive who this week left the employ of Virgin Media for “personal and family reasons”, is just the latest in a long line of names that have presided over the UK cable industry. Burch was brought into the company to oversee the amalgam of NTL and Telewest that effectively created a single UK cable company.
There were positives that came out of his tenure at the top, even if his two predecessors would have put some of them in place, but you can’t avoid thinking the cablenet trails behind its mighty satellite competitor.
The deployment of the V+ digital video recorder finally gave cable an answer to the Sky+ unit some five years after DTH customers received a similar box. However, this and the launch of on demand services should be put into the context that this is what every other cable operator in Europe is also planning.
The choice of content found in the on demand offer has always struck me as bewildering, episodes of Alias, CSI, The OC, Grey’s Anatomy and Cold Case sounding like they have been taken from an operator in New Jersey rather than one serving the UK. Only CSI, and among the teen audience The OC, are shows that really get people talking. One channel head assured me that Burch was aware of the problem and that he did have a true grasp of what the market here required. A cable version of the BBC iPlayer is on the way, but is far from an exclusive proposition. UK cable has long struggled to create original programming and this cannot happen overnight.
Burch had focussed on the customer, the marketing pieces being the envy of one operator in continental Europe I spoke to recently, at least the brightly coloured fliers that regularly come through my letterbox don’t refer to me as a revenue generating unit.
But it seems evident that the apparently genuine illness from which Mrs Burch is said to be suffering, and we wish her well, was not the only reason for his departure. The US-based chairman Jim Mooney and the shareholder Bill Huff, the catalyst for so many developments in UK cable over the past few years, had assumed control of negotiations with the private equity companies now beaten back by the markets.
Richard Branson must be wondering what he has to do in order to make a success out of a broadcasting venture. Sir Richard is now stepping back from the day to day running of his businesses, maybe he could go ballooning with Steve Burch, or perhaps he should look to put in his own man to run the cable company that operates under his name.