The UK cable operators have begun the roll out of their long-awaited video-on-demand services in what is claimed as the first mass market launch of VOD outside the US.

Initially available to digital customers in the Glasgow area, the ntl On Demand service will be extended progressively to other regions.

The service is billed as a significant enhancement to the existing ntl digital offering. It will provide access to hundreds of hours of additional programming, including a ‘Pick of the Week’ catch-up option showing a selection of top shows from the previous seven days, advertiser-free children’s programmes, music videos and adult content.

Companies that have already agreed to provide content include the BBC and leading film distributors. Notably absent are the main commercial television networks, although ntl says additional partners will join the service as it develops.

The ntl On Demand service will offer DVD style features including pause, fast-forward and rewind. Programmes will be available for 24 hours from purchasing. Films will be available on demand up to nine months before scheduled TV movie channels, with full-length film trailers that can be viewed before purchasing. The company says there will also be an increasing amount of free material.

“We invested over 9 billion pounds in our high speed fibre optic network so that we could provide leading access services to our customers,” said Simon Duffy, chief executive officer of ntl. “VOD is the latest example of this. ntl On Demand gives our customers a wide choice of quality viewing at a time that suits them. VOD is TV the way it’s meant to be.”

Telewest Broadband simultaneously announced a similar movies-on-demand service to a small number of customers in Bristol. It marks the first phase of the company’s plans to launch a wider choice of TV-on-demand services.

Eric Tveter, president and chief operating officer at Telewest Broadband, said: “We’re transforming TV as we know it by launching a truly on-demand movie service, with DVD functionality. We plan to ramp up our TV-on-demand services over the year with additional TV, music and niche content to appeal to all of our one million digital TV customers.”

Telewest Broadband is investing around £20 million in the development of video-on-demand and personal video recorder services in 2005. The company plans a full region by region roll-out starting in the summer.

It is widely expected that ntl and Telewest will eventually merge their cable operations, effectively completing the consolidation of the UK cable market.

The movie-on-demand service in both cases is provided by FilmFlex, formerly known as MovieCo, a joint venture company between Sony, Disney and the On Demand Group. It will offer hundreds of films, including the latest blockbusters and classics.

In November, the joint venture received regulatory clearance from the EU to begin operations in the UK and Ireland, providing the first real threat to Sky.

Andy Birchall, chairman of the ON Demand Group commented: “After three years in development, FilmFlex is the first UK movies-on-demand service to have the backing of two major Hollywood entertainment companies behind it, which combined with content from other major and independent film studios, will deliver a top quality consumer experience.”