Barclay Knapp, the chief executive of telecoms giant NTL, has effectively ruled out a bid for either Telewest or Orange, two companies the City believed NTL was stalking, and signalled that the cable group would not go head-to-head with BSkyB for the rights to show live football.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Independent on Sunday, Mr Knapp rubbished an idea that NTL would bid for Telewest if it felt it could force the deal past regulators.
NTL is close to completing the purchase of CWC Communications, a deal which would make it the UK's largest cable TV operator. The City has long assumed NTL would also like to buy Telewest, the UK's other major cable company. But Mr Knapp said: "This does not mean it's a short step to us buying up the rest of cable. The integration of Telewest would be potentially troublesome."
Mr Knapp also dampened speculation that he would bid for Orange, the mobile phone operator that Vodafone AirTouch needs to sell. Analysts predicted that NTL would make an offer for Orange after it pulled out of the bidding for the new-generation mobile licences. Orange won a licence. But Mr Knapp said that a bid for Orange was "not agressively on the agenda".
The American tycoon also gave the strongest indication yet that NTL would not directly challenge BSkyB in the £2bn fight to televise live Premier League football.
Bids have to be in this Wednesday for the 18 different packages to show top-flight English football.
NTL and BSkyB are understood to have discussed making an agreement not to bid against each other. ONdigital is also thought to have been in discussion with NTL in the hope of coming to a similar arrangement.
Mr Knapp would not confirm any talks but said the group's chief concern was to secure some of the rights to games, and that if BSkyB owned other rights, that would not worry NTL. "Our main interest is that the rights are cut up into several different packages," he said. "If you sell the rights to a single owner then you risk alienating the fan base."
He added that it was important for NTL to own some rights, but it would offer any rights it had to BSkyB and expected BSkyB to reciprocate.
News of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvres will increase concern that the Premier League has made a tactical error by dividing the rights into a series of packages, rather than granting a single broadcaster exclusive rights as it has in the past. BSkyB paid £673m for the current set of exclusive rights, which it then sells on to other broadcasters.
However, there is also speculation that ITV may come up with a surprise bid for the main package of 66 live games. Brian Barwick, ITV's head of sport, who defected from the BBC two years ago, is ambitious to make the broadcaster a major player in television football by putting Premier League games alongside its Champions League coverage.
Unlike the BBC, whose new director-general Greg Dyke has ruled out a bid for one of the live packages, ITV has kept its options open.
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