The cable operator Virgin Media is plotting a shake-up of the pay-TV industry by auctioning off rights to some of the best slots in its channel menu to the highest bidder.
The move, backed by its parent company, the pan-European giant Liberty Global, is an attempt to open up a new source of income.
Operators in the US cable industry where the company's founder John Malone was a pioneer have long cashed in their on control of channel menus.
It is likely to prove controversial, however, as it could boost competition to the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.
They have guaranteed slots on the first page of programming guides and in return must broadcast news and other public service programming.
Virgin Media is testing the waters in a consultation issued to its broadcasters which warns that it “may exercise its discretion to offer vacant slots on the basis of a competitive tender”.
The operator said it will offer all broadcasters to bid for slots but reserved the right to disqualify adult and other niche channels such from high-profile positions.
Lower numbers in the programming guide are more valuable as they deliver a boost to audiences from viewers who are casually channel surfing.
Among the prime real estate Virgin Media could auction is its sixth slot, which was previously occupied by BBC Three until it was turned into an online-only channel as part of budget cuts.
Virgin Media is under pressure to deliver an improved financial performance after missing targets due of discounting to address fierce competition in broadband and misreporting the pace of its £3bn Project Lightning network expansion.
A spokesman for the operator said any auction would be designed to create the "best and fairest" outcome and would be in line with regulations.
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