ONdigital float put off

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The Independent Online

The flotation of ONdigital, the digital television broadcaster, may now have to wait until next year after an escalation in the dispute between joint owners Carlton and Granada.

Despite the opposition of Granada chairman Gerry Robinson, his counterpart at Carlton, Michael Green, had hoped to complete the float, which could value ONdigital at £1bn, before the end of the year. However, it is understood that Mr Robinson has put back the timetable.

The disagreement takes place against the backdrop of the Competition Commission's joint investigation into the planned merger of Carlton and United News & Media (UN&M), and the stated desire of Granada to acquire one of its media rivals.

There is speculation that Mr Green is anxious to float ONdigital in order to boost Carlton's share price and bolster its defence against a possible bid from Granada. By contrast, Mr Robinson would prefer to retain his stake in the joint venture until ONdigital has established a stronger subscriber base. In addition, there is speculation that Mr Robinson's real motivation is a desire to keep Carlton's share price down and throw a spanner in the works of its merger plans.

The Competition Commission's investigation was sparked by the announcement last December of Carlton and UN&M's plans for a merger that would leave them controlling 36 per cent of television advertising revenue, more than the limit of 25 per cent. However, both sides are confident that the limit will be raised and the merger approved.

A bid by Granada for either Carlton or UN&M would also breach the 15 per cent audience share limit. Raising that could only be achieved by Act of Parliament.

All sides have argued that the regulations governing broadcasters have been rendered obsolete by the emergence of the internet and other advertising outlets. In time, the entire ITV network is expected to come under one roof.

The Competition Commission will report its findings to Stephen Byers, the Trade and Industry Secretary, on 16 June and an announcement is expected a month after that.

ONdigital recently announced that it has 673,000 customers and has set a target of 2 million by the end of the year. However, at the last count BSkyB's rival digital platform was revealed to have 2.8 million customers.