Why does Richard Branson get into such a mess when he tries to expand
into the media? It is a question a lot of people are asking after
Virgin’s high-profile failure to win the judicial review over the
Channel 5 franchise.
Indeed, if Branson ever takes time from ballooning, or making
allegations about the conduct of other lottery bidders, he might pause
for a bit of self-examination.
He would seem to be ideally suited to a business run by people with
large personalities and vast resources. Yet after a series of failed TV
initiatives going back ten years, Branson has made only a meagre impact
on television - forays into Super Channel, British Satellite
Broadcasting, ITV and Channel 5 have all come to nought. In contrast,
over the same period, under the same conditions, Michael Green of
Carlton Communications has streaked ruthlessly ahead, to become a
dominant force. Virgin is left with a moderately successful national
There is a strange lack of acumen in the way Virgin approaches
television. It seems to be a buccaneer which doesn’t appreciate or
understand the rules of the game it tries to play. British broadcasting
is still a strictly regulated industry run by a semi-civil service-style
body - the Independent Television Commission. You cannot apply for an
ITV licence on a wing and a prayer: it requires detail and application.
You have to lay out serious plans, and hire the right sort of executives
to prepare those plans, who know a regulated industry inside out.
Virgin plays a wonderful PR game, and is brilliant at talking up its
pitch. But it seems oddly inattentive when it comes to the killer
details. One of the most telling incidents about Virgin’s amateurism
came in the last ITV licensing round, when it blithely applied for three
ITV franchises (Thames, TVS and Anglia) with the same single
application, despite the fact that the franchises are vastly different.
It failed the quality hurdles. This was such a basic mistake it amazed
When I sat down to read all four bids for Channel 5, prepared by a
different team, I became rapidly aware that Virgin’s cheerful and
uncomplicated stress on entertainment had once again missed vital
points. The ITC had clearly signalled that Channel 5 fell into the
public service division of broadcaster: for example, some serious news
programming was expected. Virgin simply planned hourly bulletins. Virgin
also proposed that their Channel 5 chief executive would also direct the
programmes. He would have to be a superman.
There are conspiracy theorists who think that the ITC has it in for
Branson. Not so. It is a shame that such an original force has been
unable to find a way so far into British broadcasting. But the fault
lies with Virgin.