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'Three bidders in running' for Virgin Media's UKTV stake



Discovery and ITV are among the companies interested in buying 50% share in BBC Worldwide joint venture

Monday 11 October 2010

The sale of Virgin Media's 50% stake in UKTV, owner of channels including Dave and Gold, is thought to be down to three bidders with companies including Discovery and ITV believed to have expressed interest.

Virgin Media values its stake in UKTV, the pay-TV business formed in 1997 as a 50/50 joint venture with BBC Worldwide, at about £350m including outstanding loans of £116m.

It is thought that BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm which has first refusal and can effectively exercise control over who buys the stake, is keen to increase its shareholding in UKTV as part of the deal.

In the past BBC Worldwide has been keen to take full control of UKTV. However, it is constricted by a loan facility of £218m, out of which it had drawn down £134m at the end of last year.

BBC Worldwide is in line to significantly boost its coffers with the sale of a majority stake of its magazines operation, but this is not likely to be completed before what is thought to be an end of the year deadline for Virgin Media to offload its stake.

It is thought that parties that have shown an interest in Virgin Media's stake include ITV, Discovery Networks and Channel 4. US television company Scripps Networks has also been tipped as a possible bidder.

The major issue with any potential deal is that the new joint owner will have to be the junior partner and acceptable to BBC Worldwide and its chief executive, John Smith. In 2005 the stake is thought to have been put to the market, with as many as nine unsuccessful partners emerging.

However, one of prime attractions of the deal is a long contract UKTV has for the BBC back catalogue, which is likely to sustain the business, which has a turnover of about £200m per year, and in particular UK Gold, for about the next 20 years.

The ITV chairman, Archie Norman, and the chief executive, Adam Crozier, have made no secret of a desire to get into pay-TV to reduce the broadcaster's dependence on advertising revenue and are thought to have taken the opportunity to look at UKTV's books.

ITV's debt stands near £450m with no major repayments due to banks until 2015, but it is not clear if management are willing to make such a commitment. "It is a bit dubious what ITV will get out of it as a dormant shareholder and they are not the ideal partner for the BBC," said one industry source.

Discovery Networks has been heavily touted in the industry as a prime candidate. BBC Worldwide and Discovery have been partners in a global factual programming and channels joint venture since 1997.

"UKTV is a massive pain in the arse on the factual front [as a competitor] for Discovery," said one source. "Discovery is also disproportionately weak in the UK and they have a good relationship internationally already."

Channel 4, which at the end of last year had cash reserves of about £200m, is not thought to be actively interested. David Abraham, the Channel 4' chief executive and former chief executive of UKTV, has already managed to benefit financially from the pay-TV operation by striking a 10-year deal to handle TV and online ad sales for its channels.

One industry observer pointed out that a player to watch could be Scripps Networks, which focuses on lifestyle media and owns brands including the Cooking Channel and the DIY Network and has been on a major expansion drive internationally taking stakes in numerous channels.

Last year Scripps launched the Food Network in the UK and Europe, home to shows including Nigella Express and Great British Menu, in partnership with Chello Zone.

Bankers and analysts had linked Time Warner to UKTV. The company had expressed interest in Channel 5 and was thought to be the under bidder on BSkyB's successful move to take control of Virgin Media Television.

However, late last month chief executive Jeff Bewkes said the company was not "actively pursuing" a deal.

One source argued that Virgin Media may not necessarily look to sell off its entire UKTV holding. "It is not the best time to unload one of the last big strategic assets in the pay-TV market," added the source. "I could potentially see them considering holding on to a chunk [of UKTV] a while longer


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'Three bidders in running' for Virgin Media's UKTV stake





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