Earlier in the week I put a bit of context into the background surrounding the advertising of a second national commercial multiplex. I plan to go through in a bit of detail what each of the bidders is proposing. As ever, these are my own views and don’t represent those of any employer, past or present.
Ofcom has published details of both bidders on its website.
Sound Digital is a consortium made up of Arqiva (the major UK transmission provider, and owner of the Digital One multiplex amongst others), Bauer Media (the second largest commercial radio group in the UK, and owner of brands including Kiss, Magic, Absolute Radio and Planet Rock) and UTV (owner of the ITV franchise in Northern Irleand, Talksport, some local UK radio services, as well as significant assets in the Republic of Ireland).
The services, as described in Sound Digital’s press release, are as follows:
- UTV will launch three original speech stations – talkRADIO, talkSPORT 2 and talkBUSINESS – significantly extending choice and plurality in a sector currently dominated by the BBC.
- Bauer will offer high quality music stations catering to a broad spectrum of musical taste, including Magic Mellow, KISSTORY and heat radio, along with highly successful digital stations Absolute 80s and Planet Rock.
- Virgin Radio will return to the UK airwaves under a partnership between the Virgin Group and UTV.
- Sound Digital will also offer a non-mainstream music station, which Jazz FM has signed an agreement to provide.
- Stations will also cater to specific areas of interest for which there is additional national demand: UCB Inspirational and Premier Christian Radio for Christian audiences, Sunrise Radio and British Muslim Radio.
- To lay the foundation of a future migration to DAB+ and accelerate take-up of DAB+ compatible radios, Sound Digital will launch a DAB+ channel. The programming content of this ground-breaking channel will be revealed ahead of launch.
With a rumoured sale of its local radio services, UTV is the standout here, launching four new services, three speech and one music.
Bauer is offering five music services, four of which already exist, and two of which are already available nationally. Only Magic Mellow is completely new.
Jazz aficionados will be pleased to see the return, nationally of Jazz FM. They previously had a slot on D1, but currently can only be heard in London on DAB.
Three of the four special interest stations are currently broadcasting locally, meaning that this bid would bring them national broadcast coverage. British Muslim Radio is the new service.
Sound Digital claims that it will reach 73% of households and 63% of major roads (increasing to 75% and 65% if international agreements are met), with a network of 45 transmitters.
Here are some initial thoughts on the Sound Digital bid:
- The assumed big story here is that Virgin Radio is coming back as part of a UTV licence deal with Virgin Group. But I’m a little confused about how that fits in since it promises to once again be a rock and pop station. As regular readers will know, I worked for a long time at the original Virgin Radio, but I was very supportive of the rebranding of the service when SMG sold it to The Times of India in 2008. What seems strange to me in 2015 is that Bauer would be happy with a consortium that seems to be directly targeting its own 2013 acquisition, Absolute Radio. Media Guardian even illustrated their report of the D2 story with a picture of Christian O’Connell from back in the Virgin Radio days. The station will of course live and die on how it’s programmed and resourced of course. But Bauer had essentially taken “ownership” of rock in this country with the Absolute branded stations including Absolute Radio and Absolute Classic Rock, as well as Planet Rock and Kerrang!
- I actually think the bigger story is the significantly increased amount of speech that is being promised by Sound Digital. We’re seeing the return of Talk Radio (as “talkRADIO”), alongside a sister station for Talksport and a new business service. The UK is underserved with speech radio, and it’ll be interesting to see how Talk Radio takes on LBC (and Five Live). Their business service is also interesting, although I find that to be a harder one to justify. And it’ll be interesting to hear how they plan to programme Talksport 2 – whether that means buying more sports rights, or broadening away from mostly football. But UTV is definitely delivering the most creative offering in this bid.
- Bauer seems to be moving across Absolute 80s and Planet Rock from D1. Does that mean that it will be able to bring some of its other stations over on Digital One back up to stereo with the increased bandwidth? Or can we expect new services to launch on Digital One too?
- It’s worth noting that coverage of D2 will not be as great as D1 (upwards of 90% coverage), therefore some current listeners to Absolute 80s and Planet Rock are likely to lose coverage.
- On the other hand 15 services (including one DAB+ service) is also a lot for a single multiplex, even taking account for at least three predominantly speech services. Again, lovers of stereo might be a bit disappointed.
- Arqiva has a 40% shareholding in this consortium (the largest shareholding), and it’s also the owner of Digital One and the majority of local DAB multiplexes. As such, were it to win, Arqiva would have a hand in most of UK DAB radio.
- Sound Digital is offering a single, as yet un-named DAB+ service with no hint as to what kind of format it might be. That’s perhaps a little disappointing since it’s not going to easily kick start a DAB+ revolution. But obviously it depends what the service is.
- I’m somewhat surprised that Sound Digital seems to be offering significantly less coverage with slightly more transmitters than Listen2Digital. A detailed look at the non-confidential parts of their bids may be in order to see why this is when Ofcom publishes them next week.
- In many respects, this is the “safe” bid – the existing, almost sole, transmission provider allied with two of the top three biggest UK radio groups building on solid brands for most of its services. However it doesn’t obviously bring many exciting new services to the market – with the notable exception of what UTV is offering.
Sound Digital website
My first take on the Listen2Digital bid can be read here.