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BRANSON: LIKE A VIRGIN?

07-03-2007

Telewest is no more; now in the West Midlands, cable TV is supplied by Richard Branson's Virgin Media. But Dionne McCarthy reckons Old Beardie is still fumbling around like a first-timer.

I have subscribed to Birmingham Cable (Telewest) for many years now, and over these years and the various mergers have remained a loyal and reasonably happy customer.

Then last month - without warning - I received a letter, which meant my cable service would never be the same again.

I was excited when the flashy red and black leaflet landed on my door mat, and I like many, was fooled by the glossy paper and perfectly worded promises of a brave new world where television would be on demand and my internet service would run at super new speeds.

'Virgin Media' are promising a new wave of media convergence and interactivity providing TV, Phone, Broadband and Mobile in one integrated package. The literature is all very personable in Richard Branson's inimitable style and offers simplicity, availability and control, pitting the service as a rival to Sky.

'Our V+ box gives you high definition broadcasts that put you in complete control. You can record, pause and rewind live TV, even recording up to two separate channels at the same time while watching a third - try doing that on Sky+!'

Hmmm, V+, Sky+, do I see a similarity here? Okay, so some not so imaginative re-wording going on and an elbow in the ribs for Sky but that's not a crime, and I had long been envious of my friends who were able to take advantage of Wednesdays 2-4-1 cocktails whilst recording Ugly Betty at the same time!

However so far all Virgin Media and their smug assertions have managed to do is get my back up - and from the hundreds of blogs I've trawled through I'm not alone in my grievances.

In fact, I'm one of the lucky ones - so far other than the volume control on my remote failing to work due to some technical programming issue, my main complaint is the removal of Sky Sports News, Sky One, Sky Travel and RTS news from the service.

Talks between Sky and Virgin Media broke down last week and Branson refused to pay what he claims were ridiculously high prices for the Sky channels, and as a result they have been revoked.

Now I'm not losing any sleep over Sky Sports News, although I am an avid ‘Lost' fan and Sky One will be sorely missed in my household; however that I could have lived with, but what has outraged me is the blasé attempts Virgin have made to make light of this when in actual fact we are being robbed of a service that ‘we' are paying for!

Turning over to where Sky Sports News used to reside I was greeted by ‘Old Sky Sports Snooze' - not big or clever Mr Branson! And a caption from Virgin saying that ‘Thanks to Sky some of the non premium channels like Sky One and Sky News are no longer available, they've picked up the ball and gone home.”

A more ‘growed up' Virgin press release managed to explain the problem with a little more dignity!

'The nature of these negotiations leads us to believe that this outcome has been deliberately engineered by Sky in order to suppress competition and coerce Virgin Media's customers into switching to its service by denying them access to the basic channels. (These negotiations do not impact Sky's premium sports and movies channels which will continue to be available to Virgin Media customers.)'

Now I'm all for Branson standing his ground against the giant that is Sky, but I am uncomfortable being pulled into the argument through a series of playground retorts.

Somebody should remind Richard Branson that he is a much respected and trusted business man and these types of jibes only undermine his status and quite frankly say to me that he doesn't care too much about his customers in all of this. Had the situation been handled with a more apologetic tone rather than passing the buck then I, like many other new Virgin Media customers could have been appeased.

To add insult to injury, for many Virgin customers the problems do not end there. There's been a barrage of blogs posted with customers complaining about their new Virgin service; new customers appearing to be having the most problems. Broadband Technical issues, more than inadequate customer services (40 minute call centre queues in some cases!) and misleading sales information all add up to what has so far been a less than successful outing in the entertainment media industry for Branson.

My only hope is that these are merely teething problems, that Sky and Mr B make friends, have a game of kiss chase and bring back my beloved Lost before I sell my soul to Rupert Murdoch and any scruples I might have had will be lost forever! Although my 599 channels might help me to sleep at night!

Any other ex-Telewest customers less than impressed by the replacement Virgin service? Leave a comment on our messageboard.

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