Media experts yesterday predicted a bitter TV takeover war once new rules relaxing ownership of Britain's television companies come into effect.
Among those tipped to become predators for some of the smaller ITV companies were Carlton Communications, which already owns Central and has stakes in Meridian and GMTV, Granada, which owns LWT, and MAI, which controls Meridian and Anglia.
They will all be able to expand their empires significantly once the new Broadcasting Bill, announced yesterday by Virginia Bottomley, the National Heritage Secretary, becomes law in early 1997.
Share prices in their likely targets rose dramatically in anticipation of takeovers. Ulster TV added almost pounds 100m to its pounds 1.3bn market value as shares in the company rose 68p to pounds 10.23.
The value of HTV, also seen by some analysts as a potential bidder for Border TV, rose by about pounds 25m to about pounds 260m, as shares rose from 269p to 302p. Grampian was up 16p to 219p, adding pounds 5m to the TV company's pounds 66m value.
Likely predators' share prices remained flat or dipped slightly. Carlton was down 17p to 959p, partly on renewed speculation of a bid for United Newspapers, owners of the Express titles, while MAI fell 9p to 310.5p. However, a Carlton Communications spokesman described the proposed Bill as "very good news for the industry".
The Heritage Secretary's Bill proposes to remove the limit of two licences for any one ITV company. The new limit will be a 15 per cent share of the total television audience.
The Bill is seen by many analysts as more generous towards companies such as Carlton and Granada than had been anticipated. Anthony de Larrinaga, a media analyst at Panmure Gordon, said: "Using audience share rather than advertising was a more attractive assessment of limits.
"What this means is that companies in London and the South-east areas will be given more headroom to grow their operations, giving Carlton the opportunity to expand its business. I would have thought that Yorkshire Tyne Tees would be a likely target from either Granada or MAI, although that may have to involve a break-up of the YTT company to comply with the 15 per cent rule.''
Granada may be out of the running because it already controls the Granada and LWT franchises, is moving into satellite TV and also has its hands full with its pounds 3.3bn Forte bid .