Andrew Murray-Watson: Murdoch's ITV ploy is a turn-off for shareholders

BSkyB is trying to knock out NTL, but it may get a black eye itself
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The Independent Online

There is only one 800lb gorilla in the British TV market, and that is Rupert Murdoch.

On Friday evening, as weary City traders headed to the nearest overpriced wine bar, BSkyB announced that it had snapped up a 17.9 per cent stake in ITV.

The move makes it impossible for NTL, the cable rival to BSkyB, to follow through on its planned takeover of ITV. It was an astonishing blocking tactic by Mr Murdoch and his son, James, who are respectively the chairman and chief executive of the pay-TV company.

But this time it looks like the media silverback may have gone too far. BSkyB told analysts on Friday night that it intended to be a long-term shareholder in ITV. By saying so, it stated its intention never to let ITV fall into the hands of one of its arch-rivals.

The satellite company claimed that, at 135p per share, ITV represented good value for money and that the likely takeover of the broadcaster by either NTL or RTL, the owner of Channel 5, was neither here nor there. Funny, then, that BSkyB didn't make its move back in July when ITV's shares stood at a little over 90p.

If you actually believe BSkyB's protestations that its stake in ITV has no competition implications, then you probably still leave a glass of sweet sherry and a mince pie out for Santa Claus.

Anyway, Sir Richard Branson, with an 11 per cent stake in NTL, will undoubtedly ask competition authorities in continental Europe and the UK to intervene and force BSkyB to sell on its stake.

That will serve up the juicy prospect of another rumble in the jungle between Sir Richard and Mr Murdoch.

The Virgin king will appear in his favoured role as gallant underdog, while a snarling Mr Murdoch won't care how he looks, as long as he wins. NTL, soon to be rebranded Virgin, had started to look like a serious contender in the pay-TV market, and Mr Murdoch will be itching to drop the upstart on to the canvas.

And the clock is ticking. While this situation is likely to be tied up by the regulators for a year or two, BSkyB will continue to press home its attack on NTL in the pay-TV and broadband internet arenas. By the time the issue is resolved, NTL will probably be left reeling on the ropes.

Mr Murdoch has never paid much heed to the concerns of investors in his companies, but this time BSkyB shareholders are likely to be justifiably peeved. The company has just spent nearly £1bn on its stake in ITV without a word of consultation with them. Not only that, but ITV's share price is almost certain to head south tomorrow morning when it becomes apparent that the broadcaster is no longer a takeover candidate. So overnight, the value of BSkyB's earnings-dilutive stake will have shrunk by £100m or so.

Fidelity is unlikely to be the toast of the City, either. It has pocketed a hefty premium for its stake in ITV, while all the other institutional shareholders in the broadcaster will watch helplessly as the value of their stakes falls tomorrow.

ITV insiders say they are happy that Fidelity is no longer on the company's books. And there must be chief executives of other companies who will pay close heed to how the fund manager treated ITV.

Fidelity has lost some important people from its ranks recently and one has to wonder whether it is beginning to tell.

But this move to block consolidation in the British TV market is all about Mr Murdoch. If competition authorities let him get away with this, it will be his greatest coup yet. If he is forced to cough up the ITV stake quickly, it will be his greatest blunder.

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