ITC extends Channel 5 delay

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The Independent Online
Companies bidding for the right to operate Channel 5 were on tenterhooks last night as the Independent Television Commission continued to indicate that no final decision had been taken on the ultimate winner.

The delay has frustrated the leading lights of the British television business, most of whom are involved in the high-stakes bidding. Speculation in an already rumour-mad industry is now reaching fever pitch, as the ITC's silence is read like so many tea leaves swilling in the bottom of a cup.

A meeting last Thursday of the full ITC board, scheduled to wind up by mid-afternoon, continued until the close of the business day before breaking up inconclusively. ITC officials met again yesterday, and industry observers speculated that the commission may be taking legal advice about the final award.

The ITC refused to be drawn on the reasons for the failure to reach a decision. A spokesman said the final award could come as late as next month.

UKTV, a consortium led by CanWest, the Canadian broadcaster, bid pounds 36m for the 10-year licence, topping the field, and would normally be expected to win.

But the group has had trouble convincing the ITC about its ownership structure, which is heavily dominated by non-European interests.

"Any delay is bound to worry the front-runner and will be welcome news to the rest of us," a source at a competing consortium said.

To confuse matters in an already confusing race, one of the UKTV partners, SelecTV, confirmed earlier this month that it was in discussions that might lead to its sale to an unnamed bidder. It is believed that the ITC has been briefed on the issue by at least one would-be buyer, the media and information company Pearson, which insisted it would not be interested in buying SelecTV merely to gain entry into a potentially winning bid for Channel 5.

Pearson leads another consortium, Channel 5 Broadcasting, which bid pounds 2,002,000 for the 10-year licence, at level-pegging with an offer from Virgin TV, comprising Richard Branson's Virgin Group, Associated Newspapers, ITV company HTV and others.

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