Pearson may quit BSkyB

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PEARSON, the media-to-investment banking conglomerate, is looking to sell its 14 per cent stake in BSkyB later this summer in a deal that would catapult the satellite TV operator into the FT-SE 100 index.

Speculation about what Pearson will do when a standstill agreement expires in August pushed shares in BSkyB to a new high on Friday of 320p - comfortably above last year's flotation price of 256p. Analysts say entry into the FT-SE 100 would attract index-tracking funds and lift the shares even higher.

Pearson's stake in BSkyB is currently worth pounds 768m. But analysts say the net amount raised from any placing or open offer would be substantially less because Pearson, one of the original investors in BSkyB, would incur a capital gains tax liability of some pounds 300m.

Capitalised at almost pounds 5.5bn, BSkyB is already the size of a middle-ranking FT-SE 100 stock such as ICI or Thorn EMI. But it is barred from blue-chip status because of Stock Exchange rules that stipulate at least 25 per cent of a company's issued share capital must be traded freely on the stock market.

That restriction would be lifted if Pearson cashed in all its BSkyB shares. In addition to a direct 9.8 per cent stake, Pearson has a further 4 per cent of BSkyB held indirectly through BSB, a holding company in which French group Chargeurs and television and leisure conglomerate Gran- ada are also represented. BSB Holdings speaks for 14 per cent of BSkyB's equity.

BSkyB's main shareholder is Rupert Murdoch's News International, with 40 per cent. Chargeurs has a total of 12.8 per cent and Granada 6.5 per cent.

Pearson wants to realise its investment in BSkyB soon because it no longer exercises any real managerial influence over the company. A similar reason was used earlier this year when Pearson sold a 14 per cent stake in Yorkshire Television to Lord Hollick's MAI.

Greg Dyke, chief executive of Pearson Television, is the company's only representative on BSkyB's board, where he sits as a non-executive, after Pearson's managing director Frank Barlow was replaced as BSkyB chairman earlier this year by Gerry Robinson, chief executive of Granada. Mr Dyke headed London Weekend Television until Granada won a bitter takeover battle last year.

Pearson has made no secret of its plans to expand into terrestrial television. Apart from paying pounds 175m in March for Grundy, the Australian production company responsible for the Neighbours soap opera, Pearson owns another programme producer in Thames Television, has a significant stake in "golden oldies" channel UK Gold and was recently involved in a bid for the Channel 5 franchise.

While Pearson has abandoned plans to own an ITV station, the new media ownership rules on broadcasting leave it free to build up stakes in broadcasters such as Channel 5 from 15 per cent to 25 per cent and to buy a non-European broadcaster without losing its independent producer status.