Westcountry sale to go ahead this week

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The Independent Online
Bids for Westcountry, the ITV licence holder for the Southwest, will be reviewed by the company and its advisers, Lazard Freres, today, and a winner could be declared this week. At least four bids, ranging from just under pounds 40m to about pounds 80m, have been received from HTV, United News & Media, Carlton Communications and Canwest, the Canadian broadcaster. Analysts say the company is worth about pounds 80m, while Lazard has suggested a range of about pounds 70m-pounds 100m. Westcountry's owners, Daily Mail & General Trust, Brittany Ferries and Southwest Water, have insisted they will float the company on the stock market if they do not get a realistic offer.

The sale of Westcountry follows the announcement last week that United News & Media was paying pounds 73.6m for a 20 per cent stake in HTV, licence- holder for Wales and the West, launching the latest stage in ITV consolidation.

The news sparked suggestions in the City that a fresh round of merger activity was likely, although media analysts cautioned the consolidation could take time, given what are viewed as overheated prices on the stock market for the likely ITV targets.

In addition to Westcountry, it is expected that HTV and Yorkshire-Tyne Tees will both be sold, but perhaps not until next year. United News & Media's preemptive move on HTV, snapping up the 20 per cent stake previously held by Scottish Television, made United the most likely buyer of the Welsh broadcaster, although Carlton Communications was believed still to be interested. Carlton and United are also thought to be leading in the race for Westcountry.

"The most logical buyer for Westcountry would be whichever company ends up with HTV," one media analyst said this weekend. "They are contiguous, and share transmission services and the same [advertising] sales house."

Meanwhile, Scottish Television is believed to be reviving its interest in Grampian, the licence-holder for northern Scotland. STV has been championing a regional strategy, aiming to become an all-Scottish media company encompassing television, newspapers and new media.