NBC Honcho in London to Eye Media Pickings

06 June 2002

Bob Wright, chairman and chief executive of of leading US broadcast network NBC, is not the only US media mogul seeking acquisition opportunities in the UK – thanks to the impending relaxation in British media ownership laws.

Wright, in London last week, declared himself “heartened by [the government’s] new viewpoint” – doubtless, snarls one local cynic, because it accords so closely with that of the Bush administration.

But there was no stemming Wright's enthusiam: “When the prime minister of Great Britain stands up and says 'we're supporting dramatic changes in the ownership laws in this country because we really want to see a broader ownership base,' you have to pay attention to that. It doesn't happen very often.”

The draft Communications Bill, currently in passage through Parliament, proposes the removal of all barriers to non-EU companies from acquiring mainstream British radio and TV broadcasters. Given the government’ massive majority in the House of Commons, the bill’s adoption is a foregone conclusion, creating one of the globe’s least regulated media markets.

The City of London is already salivating at the prospect of a sell-off of UK media interests, with ITV’s controlling duo Carlton Communications and Granada Media topping a number of shopping lists. But NBC will not have it all its own way. Other US giants, including Disney and Viacom, are eying the prey.

And they are determined to prove they are no out-of-town hicks: “The stocks of all these companies have run up on the basis that an American media company will buy them,” said Viacom president and chief operating officer Mel Karmazin. “We don't need anything out there . . . enough to overpay.”

But the largest of all US media titans, AOL Time Warner, which last year acquired the UK’s leadingmagazine publisher, IPC Media, has padlocked its purse: “In the near-term, it's very difficult for us. We're not in a position of doing anything right now in the acquisition area,” said chief financial officer Wayne Pace wistfully.

Data sourced from: Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff