The Premier League is looking to tie up a deal by May, a year before BSkyB's exclusive pounds 670m contract expires. The combined firepower of Carlton and United News, whose merger will create Britain's largest commercial broadcaster worth pounds 7bn, would facilitate a bid worth well over pounds 1bn for a four-year contract.
Carlton was one of the under-bidders the last time the rights were up for grabs, although the company has maintained that the value of its offer was superior to BSkyB's.
However, both Carlton and United News will be unable to act until the Office of Fair Trading concludes its review of commercial broadcasting. Under current regulatory rules, their merger would be blocked on the grounds that the combined company would command too much on-air advertising. However, the OFT is expected to relax these rules.
BSkyB is already thought to have sounded out a number of Premier League chairmen with a proposal to pay the equivalent of pounds 1bn for the next four years. NTL and Cable & Wireless Communications, the cable companies whose merger has been referred to the Competition Commission, are also expected to bid.
But British Telecommunications has denied reports that it is willing to pay pounds 1.3bn for the rights.
In fact, the next deal is likely to be shorter than BSkyB's current four- year agreement . It is also considered unlikely that one bidder will pick up the exclusive rights to live games in the way that BSkyB did.
A spokesman for the Premier League, said: "We are still at the very early stages of the process. We have not begun negotiations or received bids and will not do so until we are ready."
A head-to-head for football rights between BSkyB and Carlton and United News would add spice to the ongoing feud between the two broadcasting blocs. BSkyB has complained to the OFT about the implication of the proposed merger, which would create a company owning eight regional ITV franchises, 29 per cent of Channel 5, 50 per cent of ONdigital and three national newspapers.
Granada, currently the biggest ITV broadcaster, has also complained to the OFT.
However, there were signs of a rapprochement between Granada and Carlton yesterday when the two announced they were going into a venture to set up a British version of Ask Jeeves, the American internet search engine.
They are paying pounds 20m each for a 50 per cent stake, valuing the venture at pounds 80m.
Uniquely, Ask Jeeves enables users to request their searches in plain English using a simple question and answer format. Its US site already attracts 650,000 British visitors each month.
TV'S SLAM DUNK, PAGE 4