LWT faces Takeover Panel grilling: Regulator seeks statement of intention following rumours of merger plans with Yorkshire-Tyne Tees

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The Independent Online
THE TAKEOVER Panel is today expected to insist that LWT spell out its intentions in relation to its rival television companies Yorkshire-Tyne Tees and Anglia.

LWT, which is the subject of a hostile pounds 600m bid from Gerry Robinson's Granada group, is rumoured to be planning a complex merger with YTT, in which it has a 14 per cent stake.

A spokesman for Granada said it confidently expected the Takeover Panel to insist on a clarification, despite the fact that LWT's defence document is due to be posted to shareholders by next Monday.

It is very unclear, however, whether LWT has yet managed to tie up a firm agreement with YTT or Anglia. A spokesman for LWT said: 'We think there are a huge number of options. Our message to shareholders is keep us independent and keep your options open.'

A bid for YTT would be complicated because, under the ITV ownership rules currently being considered by Parliament, companies would be restricted to a maximum of two ITV licences.

As YTT holds both the Yorkshire and the Tyne Tees licences it would need to find a group to take over one of the licences, most probably Tyne Tees. LWT explored the possibility of such a deal with Scottish Television in the run-up to the Granada bid, but was rebuffed. It is now thought to be talking to Anglia about a similar arrangement.

A merger with YTT would have the advantage of making life more difficult for Granada, since it would also have to seek a divestment of the Yorkshire group if it was to keep the LWT franchise that it wants.

'It would probably not be the end of the road but it would make it so horribly messy that we would have to think again,' Mr Robinson, Granada's chief executive, said. For this reason, a merger with YTT has been widely thought of as an LWT 'poison pill'.

However, Sir Christopher Bland, LWT's executive chairman, continues to insist that the company is not interested in taking a 'poison pill' and says that 'a small poison pill can easily be regurgitated'.

As a result there is considerable speculation that any deal with Anglia would also involve some sort of programming, marketing and advertising sales links which could be forged into a merger if the ITV television ownership rules were relaxed further.

The success of any such deal might, however, hang on MAI, Lord Hollick's conglomorate, which owns 55 per cent of Meridian, the Southern broadcaster, and which is thought to be interested in bidding for Anglia.

LWT's position is also weakened because Granada already holds 17.5 per cent of its equity and any move would require the consent of its shareholders, probably with a bare majority resolution.

Granada - which would almost certainly vote against such a proposal - would thus not have a blocking stake, but together with Mercury Asset Management, the fund manager that has 15 per cent of LWT, as well as 16 per cent of Granada, it would play a key role.

Mr Robinson said that anything that involved YTT was a risk. 'I can't see that shareholders would allow it.'

Granada also argues that a merged LWT-Yorkshire would be unattractive since it would have to pay 25.5 per cent of its advertising revenues to the Government compared with only 16.1 per cent for a merged Granada TV-LWT. It also points out that a merged Anglia- Tyne Tees would be hard to justify to Anglia shareholders since the high price paid by Tyne Tees for its franchise means it would have to pay 27.7 per cent of its revenues to the Government, instead of 23.8 per cent.

Any merger with LWT would also be complicated by the fact that YTT has run into financial difficulties, incurring huge losses by overtrading in the run-up to responsibility for airtime sales being switchedto LWT's agency, Laser. YTT was forced to issue a warning last month that it would slip into the red this year, an admission that forced the departure of the chief executive, Clive Leach.

YTT's full-year results, originally due tomorrow, were expected to spell out how hard the group has been hit. However, it is now thought these may be postponed.

(Photograph omitted)