Media: Perspective - Howe's departure suggests the future is uncertain for IDS

The departure of Mark Howe from the Flextech TV sales house, IDS, sends the clearest possible message that Telewest is set on selling its Flextech content business.

Although he is far from the most charismatic of the TV sales chiefs, Howe deserves real credit for being a passionate advocate of the value of the digital household and for surrounding himself with people capable of evangelising his mission.

Although IDS's reputation was battered by Telewest's investigation into allegations of brown envelopes moving from IDS to agencies, Howe has chipped away at the ad budgets that traditionally went to the terrestrials by devising ideas beyond simple spot advertising.

As the feature in this week's TV report (page 40) shows, it is this ability to punch above their weight that has earned Howe and the IDS team the praise of agencies.

The fact that Howe is not being replaced shows that the future of the IDS operation is in doubt. Few now think that IDS will still be a player in TV advertising sales at the end of the year (unless, of course, the rumoured sale is part of a hugely cynical exercise to get a free valuation for Flextech before the merged Telewest-ntl operation is floated).

There are a number of media companies that have expressed an interest in owning Flextech TV, which is the one remaining piece of TV real estate with any real value. But there are a number of prerequisites that any potential suitor must fulfil.

Following the purchase of United Business Media's stake in five, RTL may look like a possibility - the company has already stated that it wants to expand its European operations. But the main stumbling block is that so much of Flextech's value - put at anywhere between £700 million and £900 million - is tied up in its exclusive contract with the BBC for the UKTV portfolio of channels. The corporation is extremely unlikely to want its programmes shown by channels that are owned by a terrestrial competitor.

Any bidder must must also be acceptable to ntl and Telewest and must not threaten the merged company's grip on the platform business. BSkyB can automatically be dismissed on these grounds.

While David Elstein's Hallmark Channel has thrown its hat into the ring as it looks to expand its content business, there are two real rivals that are most likely to make the purchase - Viacom and Discovery Communications.

Both networks fulfil the criteria - they are cable-friendly and neither poses a threat to the BBC's terrestrial dominance. It is for this reason that in a few months' time, agencies wanting to advertise on UKTV or Flextech channels will probably have to approach the Discovery sales house, Sky Media or Viacom Brand Solutions.