Saban’s kicking the tires at Blighty’s ITV

Carlton, Granada set to merge

LONDON — After failing in his bid to secure German broadcast group ProSiebenSat 1, billionaire Haim Saban now may have his sights set on Blighty’s dominant commercial web, ITV.

But confusion surrounds his actual intentions: He has been linked to a consortium that could bid for either or both of the ITV shareholder companies, Carlton or Granada, which are planning a £2.7 billion ($4.4 billion) merger to form one ITV company. Alternatively, he could wait and snap up the merged entity.

Private equity group Apax Partners reportedly has held talks with Saban. Apax is thought to have carried out detailed work on a takeover bid for either company, but a recent increase in the share price of both has put the brakes on the deal.

Saban was keeping quiet on his involvement Monday.

Industryites doubt he has the bucks to buy a merged ITV, however.

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“I don’t believe Saban would get enough financing for the two companies together,” said one analyst. “He should have acted earlier when Carlton and Granada were unloved and struggling. There does seem to be a political will for the merger to succeed now.”

Meanwhile, David Elstein, former chief exec of terrestrial broadcaster Five, reportedly is heading a consortium considering a bid for either media company.

Carlton and Granada still are struggling to devise a solution that will make the merger acceptable to U.K. regulator the Competition Commission.

It has warned that the pair may have to sell off their airtime sales houses — which Carlton and Granada execs don’t want to do — as the price of approval for the merger.

Blighty’s advertisers are worried that a consolidated ITV could control 50% of commercial TV viewing and 54% of national television ad coin, much higher than the 25%-30% ad share limit the regulator enforces.

In its latest proposal, Carlton and Granada have suggested that ad rates be linked more clearly with ITV’s viewing figures.

The Competition Commission had been due to give its report on the merger to trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt on June 25. That has been delayed until October, which means a decision on the merger is unlikely before Christmas.

But while the companies are working to keep their merger on track, they do not see eye-to-eye on increasing ITV’s program budget, which was raised by £25 million ($41 million) to $1.4 billion last year.

Granada is hoping to raise the budget again this year, but cash-strapped Carlton wants to tighten its belt. A program budget meeting was due to be held today but has been put back until next week.

Predictions for July put ad spend down 9%, while August revenues are forecast to slip 5%.

Carlton is valued at £937 million ($1.5 billion) and Granada has a market capitalization of $4.1 billion.