Westcountry flotation could spark ITV bidding war

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Westcountry, the privately held ITV franchise, is considering a stock market flotation that may see the exit of one of its leading shareholders, the Daily Mail & General Trust, and could spark a bidding war in the consolidating ITV sector.

DMGT, which owns 19.4 per cent of Westcountry through its Associated Newspapers subsidiary, is believed to be eager to expand its non-terrestrial television interests, including its cable-exclusive Channel One. The company also publishes the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard.

Two other Westcountry shareholders, Southwest Water and Britanny Ferries, are also believed to be reviewing their stake in the broadcasting company, and may view a flotation as a way of reducing their stakes and realising profits.

Westcountry declined to comment on the flotation plans yesterday. But a spokesman confirmed that Lazards, the investment house, had been appointed to help the company "identify opportunities". The shareholders are believed to be attracted by the huge premiums being fetched by ITV companies, which are poised for a round of consolidation following liberalisation of ownership rules under the new Broadcasting Bill.

But analysts said Westcountry would not command premiums similar to Yorkshire- Tyne Tees, the large northern ITV company that is likely to be taken over by Granada, the media and leisure giant. One leading analyst suggested a range of pounds 70m-pounds 100m for the whole of Westcountry.

The launch of flotation plans could spark bids from other ITV companies, including HTV and United News and Media, whose ITV franchises abut Westcountry's territory. HTV, itself a possible bid target, could see the purchase of Westcountry as an effective defence against an unwelcome approach from either United or Carlton, Michael Green's television company, which owns the Central and London weekday franchises.

United, owner of the Anglia and Meridian franchises is thought to be looking at expanding its television interests, and might consider extending its holding westwards. It is also investigating opportunities in the cable and satellite markets.

Westcountry is among the smaller ITV franchises, with about 2.3 per cent of national advertising revenue. It had profits last year of pounds 5m, and for the first time paid a dividend to its shareholders. As a smaller company, it benefits from subsidies from the larger ITV franchisees, although these are likely to be withdrawn. As a result, it is unclear whether the company could survive as an independent.

Southwest Water, with 22.5 per cent of the shares, is on the receiving end of bids, from Severn Trent and Wessex Water, which have been referred to the Monopolies Commission.