Big guns join Elstein's ITV bid as Hallmark link revealed

LONDON - David Elstein's possible bid for ITV is gathering momentum as a report emerges that US entertainment giant Hallmark is backing his takeover plan.

The link, reported in Broadcast magazine, comes as Elstein and his team, involved in the bid to snatch ITV after the merger of Carlton Communications and Granada, are revealed to be working out of Hallmark's London offices.

Elstein, along with his team of Richard Brooke and Damien Harte, former finance directors of BSkyB and Five respectively, are reported to have held talks with Hallmark, a family-owned firm based in Kansas City, Kansas.

The former Five boss has claimed his plans to take over ITV will save the network £100m, but they have been rubbished by critics and rivals.

Former ITV chief executive Richard Eyre recently slammed Elstein's plans, which are also backed by venture capitalists.

Eyre said that Elstein's plans, which include spinning off the sales houses and slashing jobs, would be "disastrous" for ITV.

Hallmark's presence in the UK is currently restricted to a cable TV station, the Hallmark Channel, which broadcasts shows including 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent', the UK premiere of CIA drama 'The Agency', 'Crossing Jordan', 'Providence' and 'McLeod's Daughters'.

According to Broadcast, Hallmark been collecting data on the ITV empire and running the ruler over its finances.

It is unclear what support Hallmark will offer, but it could make a bid to snap up a chunk of either ITV company, which it is allowed to do under the new Communications Act. It would have to buy the shares in Carlton or Granada from institutional investors, which control the bulk of the ITV companies.

However, it is unlikely that Hallmark will make any move until after the Department of Trade & Industry makes its report on the ITV merger. The report has been delayed for several weeks by minister Patricia Hewitt until early next month largely became of the complexity of the Competition Commission report.

Hallmark Entertainment president of distribution and production Joel Denton said the company had looked at ITV, but said it was not currently making any plans because of the rise in the share prices of the ITV companies.

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