Where the channel hits the house

Selling TV, one door at a time

I’ve become rather a fan of the Ad Contrarian.  His blog is full of pithy wisdom about some of the overblown marketing hype you see knocking around certain quarters

A Westminster Cable Box. A beautiful thing. I bet you wish you lived in Westminster now

It’s the Ad Contrarian’s avatar. His real name is Bob Hoffman

His latest entry makes a very good point about what he calls paramarketers. That is, people who work in marketing and advertising but have never sold anything themselves.  In the end, he points out, advertising and marketing are merely ‘selling at a distance’, so if you want to be a marketer, you have to be able to sell.  In person.

Or at least you should have given it a go.

Sales is where the rubber hits the road.  But how does that apply to television?

The television industry is full of marketers but hardly anyone actually sells TV or TV channels to the public directly any more.  Yes, writers pitch ideas to producers, and producers pitch programmes to TV executives and actors promote their programme in interviews, but the main promotions are handled by marketers.   But can you imagine someone knocking on your door, telling you about TV channels you might be interested in?

Well, I once spent a year doing exactly that: knocking on doors selling TV.  I know.  Crazy.

It was long long ago, in a land far far a… actually it was in Westminster, a curious borough which numbers the Queen and Prime Minster as council tax payers, as well as such areas as Pimlico, St John’s Wood and  Soho.  But it was long long ago, before BSkyB launched, when a few fledgling cable TV operations were being created (meaning roads dug up, mysterious grey boxes installed.  See Pic).

When cable TV was ready in a new street, we’d leaflet the homes, then come and say hello, making appointments to call again and ‘advise’ householders about what was now available.   We were all armed with the sales-person’s tricks, looking for ways to engage with them.  If we spotted a tennis racket in the hall, we’d tell them about the sports channel.  If it smelled a bit funny, I would tell them about the children’s channel or the classic films.  If I saw a woman cooking, I’d mention the lifestyle options.  Westminster’s a cosmopolitan place – I sold TV to Arabs, music producers, dying aviator pioneers, prostitutes, all sorts – and all with a bespoke set of sales points carefully crafted to their needs.

Stuart Baggs. He’s a hell of a salesman. I love that about him. Rubbish brand though

Good sales people know how to work around objections – in fact they welcome them – because it allows them to frame their sales arguments.

If the prospect says ‘It’s too much money’.    Tell them how little it would cost a day.

I might end up watching too much TV.  Tell them that more choice meant more quality (doesn’t have to be true).

I love the BBC and don’t need anything else.  Tell them that many former BBC programmes are available in ‘classic’ format on other channels.

I lead a peripatetic lifestyle.  Tell them that this is really an issue for their doctor.  (or if you know what it means, that they can switch off the service when they aren’t around to watch).

I don’t own a TV.   This was the most exciting and helpful response.  When someone told me wouldn’t buy cable TV because they didn’t have a TV, I really wanted to loosen my tie, put away my sales arguments and invite myself in to suck up their nous.  I wanted to kiss them, right there in Lisson Grove, or Frith Street, or even (or especially) in Eaton Square.  This blog is a celebration of television, because of its beauty and power.  But when someone turns their back on that despite all the encouragement from society, friends and curiosity, when they make a grand gesture towards an alternative way of living, when they say that yes, they understand that TV offers an awful lot but they want to live life differently, when they opt to reject all that .. magic….it just seems to mark some sort of personal triumph.

I love these … lovable refuseniks.

Anyway, door-to-door ‘cable advisors’ seem to have gone the way of tinkers and young chimney-sweep assistants.  And it’s a shame I think.  Not for the members of the public.  They’re fine.  I’m thinking of the modern marketer working in TV who will never know the thrill of selling a programme or channel to an actual person.   It’s their loss.

Sales-person nous: When selling TV door-to-door, a scenario like this in the kitchen is an opportunity to talk about the many cooking and children’s programmes available day and night

Might not look like an obvious candidate to buy cable TV, but let the installers work that out after you’ve banked your commission


  1. Well as you may know, the Westminster Cable franchise owned by BT but leased to NTL/Virgin Media between January 2000 and 31st March 2012 is now defunct.

    The area has many problems relating dishes and aerials and having no Cable TV leaves poor choice.

    The franchise closed because BT would not upgrade the network to Digital and it was getting to the point where NTL/Virgin could no longer accept new customers as all the General Instrument,Jerrald and Scientific Atlanta analogue boxes are in a increasingly poor state and are no longer manufactured.

    NTL/Virgin was able to roll out Broadband on the network and reached around 100MB speed, it was not possible to go further without the upgrades and removal of Analogue bandwith and within 5 years 100MB will be the basic speed in a urban area and they would not be able to compete. There was also not enough Broadband customers to keep it open either.

    Westminster Cable had around 50,000 paying TV customers in 1995 and in 2012 it had just over 2,000, most paying around £4 per month for access to analogue timeshift cable channels and terrestrial channels with less channels than Freeview in total.

    The conservation rules had no impact on the Digital upgrade,the council confirmed it had no dealings with BT’s cable network.

    A similar situation is on-going in Milton Keynes and is still open, the same also happened in Barbican but closed in 2005.

    • Hello Nick – did you have a connection with Westminster Cable? I worked there in the late 1980s, before Sky launched. So customers dropped from 50,000 to 2,000? That’s amazing. No wonder it folded.

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