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UPC Primed for New Projects

New channels, facilities and set-top boxes are on the way from United Pan-Europe Communications N.V. (UPC), Europe's largest MSO.

The company announced a slew of new channels. Among them was Innergy, a mind, body and spirit channel based on an idea by musician Dave Stewart (of the band Eurythmics), set to launch this month.

UPC also recently announced a film channel targeting 18-to 34-year-olds. The channel, CineNova, is a joint venture with Sony Pictures Entertainment and Buena Vista International Television, and it will debut in Holland and Flemish-speaking Belgium May 18.

And the MSO is launching Gold, a retro channel that exploits the programming archives of SBS Broadcasting S.A., the European TV- and radio-broadcasting company UPC is about to absorb.

A shopping channel and an undisclosed network will be announced soon, according to Simon Oakes, managing director of UPCtv, UPC's program unit. Oakes added that other thematic channels are in the pipeline, including a general-entertainment service, a game channel developed by Sony, a parliamentary channel and another youth-oriented service.

The upcoming channels are targeting a variety of markets, from Scandinavia through Central and Eastern Europe, as well as major markets in Western Europe, including the United Kingdom, where UPC has no cable systems.

The services are surfacing only a few weeks before UPC is expected to complete the construction of its digital-media center in Amsterdam, Netherlands. It will support systems in 10 countries and serve some 6.9 million subscribers, about 250,000 of which are telephony customers.

The center will allow UPC to launch its so-called EuroHITS satellite project, transmitting 64 digital channels to cable headends with up to 16 separate language feeds for each channel.

UPC chairman and CEO Mark Schneider projected that by year's end, the company will reach 8 million customers. Speaking of the global expansion of UPC's high-speed Internet service, chello broadband N.V., he said, "We are growing [subscribers] by thousands each week."

Schneider added that later this year, the company will introduce its "DaVinci" set-top computer-a central processor for the home that can be hooked up to a printer, as well as a TV set.

"Full [video-on-demand] will be in place by next spring, and we can offer hundreds of channels, as well as Internet and walled-garden enhanced TV," he said. The DaVinci box comes as a result of work with Royal Philips Electronics, Microsoft Corp. and Motorola Inc.

Schneider has a rather pointed view of Canal Plus S.A., another pan-European programmer. While its networks are transmitted over most UPC systems, "We could happily discard it in most places," he said. "We just lost [Canal Plus] in Austria, and it didn't seem to hurt us too much. We launched a pay-per-view system, and that is doing almost as well."