Foreign firms plan ITV bids: French group stalks LWT as ownership rules are eased

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AT LEAST two Continental groups are preparing bids for ITV stations that may be launched as soon as the present moratorium on takeovers is lifted in January.

The bids could force the hand of such large ITV groups as Carlton Communications and Granada Group, which have been freed to buy rival companies by this week's change in takeover regulation.

Generale des Eaux, the French utility which owns 22 per cent of the satellite group Canal+, and Bertelsmann, the German group, have been in contact with media consultants, who have been asked to help them prepare moves into British television.

Both Continental companies have a list of priority takeovers. At the top of the French group's list is LWT, the London weekend group, which is also being stalked by Granada. The North-West group bought a 20 per cent stake in LWT in a dawn raid earlier this year.

Generale previously took a 10 per cent stake in TVS, which had the south coast franchise now owned by Meridian, and was willing to back TVS's bid to retain its franchise. This was thrown out by the TV regulator, the Independent Television Commission, for being too high.

Other European companies are said to be interested in ITV groups, but have yet to show their hand. CLT, the Luxembourg group that owns the radio station Atlantic 252, is believed to be interested in buying Anglia. It backed an unsuccessful rival franchise bid against Anglia.

Meanwhile, Marjorie Mowlam, Labour's shadow national heritage minister, has surprised observers by coming out in favour of complete deregulation of ITV. Ms Mowlam, who is pressing for the moratorium on takeovers to be extended while a review of all media regulation takes place, said her personal view was that television should not have special treatment.

'The only takeover regulation in TV should come from the Competition Act and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission,' she told the Independent on Sunday. 'Regional broadcasting and home-based production could be protected by having an ITC with teeth.'

Her views are likely to stir a debate in the television industry and the Labour party about regulation. Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, holds similar views.

Mr Heseltine recently invited the heads of many of the ITV companies into the Department of Trade and Industry to discuss ways of competing in Europe. He is understood to favour further deregulation of the industry. Peter Brooke, the National Heritage Secretary, has promised to review the takeover rules to see whether newspapers could be allowed to own ITV stations, but he has given no deadline for the review.

Newspaper owners such as Pearson, Mirror Group Newspapers, Associated Newspapers and the Telegraph, are keen to move into television but are stymied. One newspaper chief executive said that the changes made by Mr Brooke restricted choice and created a muddle. 'The Heritage Secretary is clearly out of his depth,' he said.

Newspaper groups are anxious that the best ITV companies will be swallowed up before the rules are eased sufficiently to allow them to enter the battle.

Two of the largest companies, Central and LWT, are seen as prime targets for Carlton and Granada. Alternatively, it is thought that Central may bid for Anglia to make itself bid proof against Carlton. There is speculation in the City that Mercury Asset Management, the investment group linked to S G Warburg, may be willing to sell its large stakes in those companies to a bidder making a reasonable offer.

Jeremy Warner, page 2

Faulty vision, page 3

(Photographs omitted)