United News in SA bid

United News & Media has announced it is bidding with partners for a new commercial national TV licence in South Africa, in a move that could offset declining audience share and a potential fall in revenues at home.

The company, which owns Anglia and Meridian TV and the Express newspapers, is bidding in a consortium with the South African Broadcasting Corporation and Primedia, a local media company, for a station that is due to start broadcasting to the country's 8 million homes next year.

Last week, the company run by Lord Hollick, its chief executive, announced it planned to cut 15 per cent of its UK TV production staff.

Of the ITV companies, United News needs most to expand its business overseas because it is the smallest of the big three companies and it failed to win a significant role in next year's digital terrestrial services. "We're bidding in South Africa, although the process has been delayed," said Roger Laughton, the chief executive of United News & Media's broadcast TV business.

The new station was originally scheduled to start broadcasting by the end of this year.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation already runs three TV channels there and M-Net Corporation operates a pay-TV service.

ITV's audience share is declining, according to the Broadcasting Audience Research Board, whose figures show the number of people who watch ITV as opposed to other TV stations has fallen to 33.1 per cent from 38 per cent in 1993.

Competition is set to increase with the introduction of close to 250 new channels next year from digital terrestrial television and digital satellite and cable TV services.

"It doesn't look good for ITV - they're not going to see any real growth in advertising revenues in the next five years," said Daniel Kervin, a media analyst at Dresdner Kleinwort Benson Securities.

"United News is the ITV company whose strategy has most come into question."

This year, United News lost in a bid with partner NTL to win a licence to broadcast 20 to 30 channels of digital terrestrial television to Carlton and Granada. Although it has access to one digital TV multiplex, it is not expected to play a significant role.

United News reported an 11 per cent rise in first-half net income before exceptional items to pounds 114.7m this month, boosted by growth in broadcasting, exhibitions and publishing. The company merged with broadcasting and financial services company MAI Group last year.