London -- After six years of struggling to mount a
cable-backed pay-per-view service, U.K. operators this week will launch Front Row, the
British cable industry's first movies-on-demand service.
When Front Row starts operations March 12, it will compete
with four-channel PPV service Sky Box Office, which was launched in December by satellite
operator British Sky Broadcasting. That service is also offered by Cable & Wireless
Communications, the largest U.K. cable operator, which agreed to take Sky's PPV
service, rather than becoming a partner in Front Row.
Front Row is backed by a consortium of four cable
companies: Telewest Communications plc, NTL, Diamond Cable and General Cable. The service
was formed to enable the cable industry to deal directly with the film studios. Front Row
will initially offer films such as Jerry Maguire, Anaconda, Matilda and
Mars Attacks! to more than 1 million subscribers for £2.99 ($5) per film -- the same
price charged for Sky Box Office movies.
To date, Front Row has signed nonexclusive
film-distribution agreements with Buena Vista International, Warner Bros. and
Columbia-TriStar International Television. Together, those three studios account for 60
percent of U.S. box-office films.
"In terms of the number of studios and films, Front
Row is equivalent to what Sky has available," said Front Row's CEO, Andy
Birchall. "But in the larger sense of how easy is it to use, cable is much
Front Row subscribers will be able to order films either
via remote control or set-top box, or over the telephone. Sky Box Office satellite
subscribers have to order via telephone.
Birchall said it's highly unlikely that the cable
companies involved in Front Row will also offer Sky Box Office. "It would confuse
customers, and the cable companies have decided that our service is sufficient," he
Birchall added that Front Row executives are in discussions
with a number of other cable operators to join the consortium.
U.K. cable companies have been trying to put together a
movies-on-demand service to combat Sky for the last six years, only to wind up launching
three months later than Sky's and without the cooperation of the industry's
Front Row will air films six months ahead of the normal
terrestrial and pay TV schedules, and six months after video rental. Films will be shown
at a variety of times to ensure greater viewing choice and convenience, just like going to
"The way that the schedule is composed, and the way
that we promote Front Row, is similar to buying a film at a multiplex," explained
Birchall. "That's the feeling that we want. It's like viewing at a
multiplex, but in your home."