View from City Road: Carlton to hit target with pre-emptive strike

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The Independent Online
Michael Green of Carlton was true to abrasive form yesterday, breaking eggs to make his omelette. His decision to launch a bid for Central in advance of the necessary legislation is the same sort of impulsive gesture as his frustrated bid for Thames TV in 1985.

He may raise the same hackles among parliamentarians as he did before among the members of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, who blocked his efforts. The necessary orders may have a much rougher ride in Parliament than they need have done.

But at the end of the day, Mr Green triumphed over Thames, snatching the London franchise after Margaret Thatcher (as she was then) was persuaded to rewrite the rules. He may well achieve his ends this time as well. Neither Michael Heseltine at Trade nor Peter Brooke at Heritage shows any signs of wanting to stop him.

Indeed, Mr Brooke has positively assisted Mr Green to gobble up one of the franchise plums before the opposition can get a look in. A combined Carlton-Central will be beyond the ambitions of even the largest newspaper groups: predator but not prey.

Although Mr Brooke has deprived shareholders of the extra premium that might have come from a contested bid, Central's shareholders have little to complain about. They have achieved a respectable price, although they will do no harm by waiting for any counter offer that may turn up.

Meanwhile, Carlton's existing shareholders will suffer little dilution - and none at all if some of the fat is trimmed from Central. Yet they have acquired a dominant position within ITV from which to exploit any change in the airtime sales rules that will enable Carlton- Central to combine advertising forces, as well as using Central's programme-making abilities.

If anyone has the potential to scramble Mr Green's omelette, it is Sir Bryan Carsberg at the Office of Fair Trading, who must now decide on whether Carlton-Central's combined 30 per cent of ITV advertising revenues is grounds for a Monopolies and Mergers Commission reference.

If so, the bid would lapse, leaving the way clear for the German publisher Bertelsmann or others. Given that Sir Bryan's political masters appear generally supportive of such mergers, he is in an intriguing position. But then Sir Bryan, like Mr Green, is not averse to rubbing politicians up the wrong way.