United we watch, is Brookes' mission

British Telecom is to sponsor Changing Rooms and Home Front as part of a six-figure deal across UK Style. The deal is linked to the entire You and Your Home strand and was secured by IDS, the former sales department of Flextech Television.

Peter Brookes is managing director of MUTV. He has
complete commercial and editorial responsibility. Which means it is him that provides the many thousands of slavering Manchester United fans across the globe with TV access to their gods.

Indeed, the last time David Beckham appeared on an MUTV phone-in programme, the station took calls from fans in Hawaii, China and Iraq. Oh yes, and Man Utd are big in Baghdad.

The football club formed by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company as Newton Heath in 1878 has certainly come a long way.

The vast majority of those foreign fans will never visit Old Trafford, but they can buy into the Manchester United experience via MUTV, the club's own cable and satellite channel.

MUTV, available through Sky Digital, NTL and Telewest, broadcasts to subscribers who pay £6 a month for six hours of Man U-related programming each day.

This includes three live half-hour news bulletins covering all aspects of the club, from the signing of new players to coverage of the ladies' team and all of the club's Premier League matches, albeit some hours after they have actually taken place.

Discussions over rights to show other competitions are continuing.

When Brookes came on board in January 1999, MUTV had a national subscription base of about 10,000; it now stands at 70,000. "When I joined the company, a lot of the channel content was lifestyle programming," he says.

"The first research project that I commissioned showed that the fans are interested in football action and news but they also want discussion programmes. I decided to introduce more phone-ins because the channel has always been marketed to fans as giving access to the club. The tagline we use is 'Get Closer'."

 

Two years in the planning MUTV first went on air in September, 1998. It had been two years in the planning by its owners, Manchester United Football Club, Granada and BSkyB, but there was some widespread scepticism over whether a single football club could generate enough programme material to sustain viewer interest.

Brookes was headhunted for the job. A journalist by trade, he began his career on local newspapers and worked his way up to become news editor on TV:AM.

Sport was, and still is, his passion and MUTV affords him the opportunity to combine his broadcasting skills with his love of football.

"When I looked at what Manchester United and the shareholders were attempting to do with MUTV, I could see it was an extremely exciting challenge. I thought it was the start of something quite revolutionary in
football broadcasting and I've been proved right," he says.

He bridles at the suggestion that the channel is the PR wing of the football club.

"My reporters are all NCTJ reporters and they've all had careers elsewhere. When the players and managers are interviewed they expect to be asked tough questions. We take the standpoint of the constructively critical supporter - I don't think we'd be taken seriously by the fans otherwise."

Indeed, the channel has broken several exclusives. Beckham gave his first interview about "the foot" on MUTV and the story was on the front page of just about every paper the following day.

Promotion of the channel is largely through club-associated media, such as the website and the two official magazines.

Brookes is planning a mailing to the club's membership database of 130,000 to grow subscriber levels. "Telemarketing is also key," he says. "The very first time we did any telemarketing, to Man Utd fans, we got a 51% conversion rate. Industry standard is about three per cent."

Surveys indicate there could be six million United fans in the country but analysts believe the team may have up to 60 million fans worldwide and the club has not been backward in trying to convert them into cash-paying customers.

"Our current international distribution of MUTV programmes has a reach of more than 70 million - 60 million in China alone," says Brookes.

Among other places, MUTV can be picked up in Scandinavia, Russia, Greece, Israel, the Middle East and India.

"Most of these deals are very new so we haven't got audience figures yet, but the anecdotal evidence from both China and the Middle East suggests that there is a very high viewership.

"ART (the channel's Middle East carrier) says that MUTV is the second most popular sports channel on their network," says Brookes.

 

Subscriber base to grow

Brookes doesn't buy the argument that interest in football has reached saturation point.

"I think there's room for the subscriber base to grow much more and I expect it to grow steadily over the next few years," he says.  "Live action on the channel ensures big leaps in subscribers. The two biggest increases we've had were last year when we showed the Far East tour games, and the previous July when we showed a
tournament in Munich, live."

The German competition alone boosted subscriber levels by 40% and the channel is showing pre-season friendlies in Scandinavia live later this year.

Manchester United was the first club to have its own channel broadcasting to the world (Middlesbrough had a dedicated channel before United, but it was available only to local viewers).

Now, several big European teams have followed suit.

Barcelona, Real Madrid, AS Roma, Inter Milan and AC Milan, Marseille and Chelsea all have their own channels. Arsenal and Liverpool are expected to join them in the near future.

"I know from having talked to my counterparts at European clubs that there are big expansion moves planned," says Brookes.

"I think the landscape of football rights is bound to change over the next few years. The ways in which rights are distributed, and therefore the platforms available on which to watch football, will change.

"Digital TV has made these types of channel possible."

Brookes is reluctant to speculate in any detail on what lies ahead for MUTV.

"If you'd asked me a decade ago where MUTV would be now I would not have been able to tell you, so I wouldn't like to predict what the situation will be in 10 years' time. However, I do know that MUTV has been a major part of the club's media interests for some years and I don't see that changing. It's a key element in how the club keeps in touch with fans worldwide."                                     

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