MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT - The media operators who are sniffing around ITV

Jeremy Lee assesses likely bidders for the merged ITV, post-Communications Act.

At the end of December, the Communications Act comes into effect.

It paves the way for a non-European Union company to bid for ITV, which, subject to the trade secretary Patricia Hewitt's ruling next week, should by then be a merged company.

Despite its recent woes, ITV is a valuable broadcasting asset, particularly for the US networks. The attractions are obvious, with pundits predicting the advertising recession should be over some time next year, ITV's position as the largest UK commercial TV station means the cash could once again be rolling in.

ITV is also ripe for restructuring, with flabby management and commissioning structures that would benefit from a complete overhaul. Assuming that a successful bidder gets past Lord Puttnam's plurality tests, US broadcasters would be able to cut costs further by offloading their content on to the channel.

A £4 billion-plus asking price for ITV is relatively small change to the American media behemoths. To put this in perspective, some could buy ITV with the proceeds of their first quarter's sales. But which companies or individuals have a cheque book big enough?

THE WALT DISNEY CO

Although Disney has not publicly confessed to wanting to throw its hat into the ring, the company is known to be looking to expand its international operations. Considering the parlous state of its businesses in the US, this seems to be a sensible option.

Sales have fallen across much of the group - ABC has been particularly badly hit by the advertising recession and languishes in third place behind CBS and NBC.

At the cinema box office, its films division has suffered some disappointments and the resorts businesses have struggled following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, while the Disney Stores retail division has also fallen on hard times.

Consequently, its chairman and chief executive, Michael Eisner, has sold the company's sporting interests and closed down its GO.com website. Disney has also reduced the number of retail outlets and is said to be contemplating disposing of the business altogether.

Although Disney already has a number of operations in the UK, these do not carry advertising and rely solely on subscription revenues.

Given the current instability in Disney's operations and its lack of experience of the free-to-air television market, the company seems to be a rank outsider as a possible bidder for ITV.

NBC

Ultimately owned by General Electric, NBC is one of three TV networks dominating US media.

It remains a US-based business with 29 stations and 220 US affiliates and stakes in a number of cable channels. NBC recently launched MSNBC with Microsoft and its pan-European business news channel CNBC is its only UK interest.

NBC, under the chairman and chief executive Bob Wright, has been attempting to break into foreign markets for some time. Its programming business has recently enjoyed a renaissance.

A bid for ITV seems unlikely, but if it wants to remain a rival to Viacom and Disney, NBC will have to look at further international expansion.

HALLMARK

Some eyebrows were raised when it emerged thatHallmark was involved in a possible bid for ITV, with five's former chief executive David Elstein, a source of much irritation to Carlton and Granada, acting as a consultant to the company.

The company's fortunes are built on its greeting-card business. Hallmark's president and chief executive, Donald J Hall, is the grandson of the founder, Joyce Hall.

In the UK, its media business is focused on its family-friendly offering, The Hallmark Channel.

Hallmark has been a production powerhouse for more than half a century and its Hallmark Hall of Fame is TV's longest-running drama series.

The Hallmark Channel, part of Crown Media, operates in more than 110 countries and features made-for-TV movies and mini-series. With a library of 700 films, there is no shortage of fodder to fill the schedule.

Suggestions that Elstein has assembled a crack team ready to turn around the fortunes of ITV indicate Hallmark may have serious intentions.

HAIM SABAN

Frequently described as the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers magnate", Haim Saban actually made the bulk of his fortune from the sale of his share in the Fox Family Channel to Disney in 2001 for an estimated $1.7 billion.

Egyptian-born, Israeli-raised and a naturalised American, the entrepreneur Saban's early career saw him producing soundtracks - among his credits is co-writer of the theme tune to Dallas.

Despite his unlikely credentials, Saban has already started to construct the beginnings of his media empire with the purchase, via his holding company PS71, of Germany's ProSiebenSat1. This made him the first foreigner to control a major German TV asset.

Although Saban has, along with Viacom, already expressed an interest in ITV, he may have ruled himself out of the running when he said he would be unwilling to invest in an ITV that does not have control of its own ad sales houses. But, like the Granada chairman Charles Allen, who performed a volte face over the same issue, he can always change his mind.

VIACOM

With extensive UK media interests, Viacom is a clear front runner. In an interview with Campaign earlier this summer, Viacom's chairman and chief executive, Sumner Redstone, made clear that he was closely monitoring developments.

Viacom's media empire is vast in scale and revenue - it spans movies, TV, radio, outdoor, video and the internet, with sales in 2002 of more than $20 billion.

It owns CBS, Paramount Television, MTV Networks, Showtime Networks, United Paramount Network and Comedy Central. ITV would help to reduce Viacom's dependence on the US market.

ITV's asking price would hardly break the bank - indeed, Redstone could buy it from his own personal fortune and still have more than $1 billion left.

Viacom is unlikely to make a rash bid - but, while Redstone considers every deal carefully, the benefits seem obvious.

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