ENTERTAINMENT CAMPAIGN: How Virgin 1 turned its UK launch to gold

Back in 2006, Virgin Media Television (VMtv), part of the content division of Virgin Media, was hatching plans to launch the first Virgin branded TV channel in the UK, called Virgin 1.

Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver in The Riches
Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver in The Riches

Campaign: Launching Virgin 1 to the media and advertising industry
Client: Virgin Media Television
PR team: Eulogy (with consumer work by Taylor Herring)
Timescale: June-December 2007
Budget: Owing to the competitive nature of TV channel launches, Virgin declined to even hint at the cost

Launch was planned for autumn 2007, when the new channel would be available via Virgin Media, Freeview, cable and broadband on-demand. This was the first time that VMtv had offered a channel on Freeview, a move that would significantly increase the potential size of its audience for advertisers.

Virgin 1 was designed to be a high-profile general entertainment channel that would appeal to a male audience and stand out in the highly competitive Freeview market. Big-name shows such as The Riches (starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver) and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles shared the bill with classics such as Star Trek.

Agency Eulogy's job was to launch the channel to the media and advertising industry. The campaign had to succeed against the backdrop of an ongoing and high-profile dispute between Virgin Media and BSkyB.

- To launch the channel to the advertising community, encouraging advertisers and their media agencies to invest in advertising and sponsorship.

- To highlight the launch on satellite, cable and, in particular, Freeview.

- To raise the profile of the VMtv business and its senior managers.

- To position the channel as a general entertainment channel in its own right, rather than an opportunistic competitor to Sky One.

Strategy and plan
Eulogy and the VMtv in-house team decided to drip-feed many of the details about the channel's acquisitions and commissions, online activity, branding and marketing.

This was supported by comment and profile pieces for VMtv's senior management and the wider Virgin Media team.

The idea was that the industry would be 'wowed' by VMtv's acquisition of blockbuster hits and be encouraged by its investment in new shows such as Crime Invasion: Britain's New Underworld.

The consumer-focused press launch was held at Virgin boss Richard Branson's Oxfordshire home. Working with Taylor Herring, Virgin 1's consumer agency, Eulogy organised a round-table discussion for journalists from Broadcast, Marketing Week, The Times, The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter and The Independent on Sunday.

When a few stories appeared early in the campaign suggesting the channel was a reaction to the Sky dispute, Eulogy reacted swiftly to stop this view from spreading.

Profiles of VMtv's MD Johnny Webb and head of programming Celia Taylor appeared in media titles such as Campaign and Broadcast, and in media supplements in The Guardian and The Independent.

The round-table discussion resulted in widespread coverage ahead of launch night and a buzz on the various publications' websites and blogs.

Overall, the campaign generated 122 pieces of coverage, more than 80 per cent of which communicated the key messages.

The channel launched with a peak audience of 422,000 viewers on its first night, but by that time the VMtv sales team had clinched prime-time programme sponsorship deals with Vauxhall and PC World and an exclusive deal with media agency ZenithOptimedia allowing it to book the first advertising slot on the channel. Many of the original advertisers continue to spend money with the channel.

Simon Avis, head of PR, Entertainment Rights
You cannot help but marvel at the power of the Virgin brand. Anything and everything Richard Branson touches typically turns to gold. Why should a move into TV be any different? The pundits certainly argued that Virgin 1 had all the odds stacked against it, even before waiting to see what the launch had to offer.

Although Eulogy had to ensure that the channel's debut to the trade was in no way a direct response to the ongoing spat with BSkyB over channel carriage, the industry's mind was clearly made up.

Launching in a highly cluttered environment, with a mere £40m programming spend, meant it really had to question how the channel was going to convince advertisers that it was worth parting with their cash.

Eulogy used the channel's programming and commercial teams very shrewdly as spokespeople to build a counter-attack strategy for the gossip columns on the nationals and broadcast trades.

The channel didn't hide behind its limited budget and positioned itself so as not to be seen as a 'cheque book' channel. It shrewdly picked the right shows to hedge its bets in a cut-throat ratings war. This paid off, successfully securing prime-time programme sponsorship deals.

Virgin 1 may have got off to a good start on the ratings front, but maintaining its position is an altogether different story. The 'For Sale' sign looming above Virgin 1's head could spell the end of the Branson 'mighty' Midas touch.

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