Branson sure Virgin1 will beat Sky One

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LONDON -- Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson said Thursday that he would not expect to sell his shareholding in cable giant Virgin Media in the event of a private equity buyout, contending that he expects the new channel Virgin1 to surpass rival Sky One's ratings in "three to four years."

At a party he hosted to celebrate the launch of Virgin1 on Monday, Branson said the Virgin brand would remain with the cable operator for the long term.

"I'm speaking now as the largest shareholder in Virgin Media, not as a member of the board," he said.

"I think it's extremely unlikely the Virgin brand would ever be withdrawn from Virgin Media," Branson said, adding, "We have never said that we'd be selling our shares. ... I think if anybody wanted to buy Virgin Media, it would be because it's got the brand. They wouldn't spend billions of pounds on it and then rebrand."

Asked to clarify that he would not sell his shareholding in the company in the event that a bid approach were repeated like the one made by private equity house Carlyle Group this summer, he said: "I'm not sure that I am allowed to say that. I chose my words pretty carefully in what I said before."

A bid from Carlyle, thought to value the group at around $23 billion including a provision for $12 billion debt, was withdrawn in July following the credit squeeze that has affected debt financing provisions.

Virgin Media opted to launch its own entertainment channel, Virgin1, after negotiations with British Sky Broadcasting to carry a package, including Sky One and Sky News, ended in acrimony. About 40,000 Virgin customers canceled their subscriptions in the quarter that Sky's channels -- home to "Lost" and "24" -- were dropped from Virgin Media homes.

Branson said that Virgin1, which boasts "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" and "The Riches," would eventually beat Sky One's ratings.

"We are hopeful that in years to come we will have a greater number of viewers than Sky One, in about three or four years. We are not spending the same amount of money as they are, but we would like to get the same audiences. Sky One does not get a very big view."

Virgin1 will launch in 19 million cable, satellite and Freeview U.K. homes on Monday. BSkyB's Sky One remains exclusive to Sky's 8 million satellite homes.
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