Virgin preps Freeview to challenge Sky One

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LONDON -- In a bid to challenge BSkyB's flagship channel Sky One, Virgin Media is launching a free-to-air general entertainment digital channel on the U.K.'s Freeview platform this fall, it was announced Monday.

Beyond those with Freeview set-top boxes, the service, dubbed Virgin1, will only be available to Virgin Media subscribers via broadband, but aims to complement the Living, Trouble and Bravo pay channels operated by the cable group.

"Virgin1 will shake up multichannel and free-to-air TV and start liberating viewers from the linear schedule," said Jonathan Webb, managing director of Virgin Media television. Broadband users also will be able to access Virgin1's catch-up programming service.

Details of Virgin1's program budget were not disclosed, but Webb is understood to have used the last month's L.A. Screenings to beef up its forthcoming lineup and hinted that investment in the network will be forthcoming.

"It will be a creative tour de force and a cutting-edge example of any time, any place content," Webb said. "Virgin Media has huge support from Virgin Media and Richard Branson (the company's biggest shareholder), who agree that Virgin1 is what U.K. audiences have been waiting for."

Virgin Media has been hemorrhaging viewers since axing Sky's entertainment channels from its basic-tier service, including such channels as Sky One -- home to "Lost," "24" and Sky News.

BSkyB intends to launch its own free-to-air digital platform service later this year but is waiting for the service to be approved pending an investigation by media regulator Ofcom.

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