LONDON: The Cheshire Cat grin that is Sir Richard Branson reportedly morphed into a mask of fury over this weekend's wrecking by Clan Murdoch of NTL's mooted merger with Britain's largest commercial broadcaster ITV.

Just before 6pm on Friday evening, NewsCorp-controlled satellite TV company BSkyB announced it had acquired a 17.9% stake in ITV, buying shares from Fidelity International and other institutional investors.

The move effectively scuttles NTL's chance of a deal with ITV, thereby depriving Branson (the US-owned company's largest shareholder following its acquisition earlier this year of Virgin Mobile) of mucho millions of pound notes.

Analysts say BSkyB's £940 million ($1.78bn; €1.38bn) stake will greatly impede the heavily indebted NTL from completing a successful takeover of ITV. BSkyB bought its crucial stake at £1.35 a share, trumping NTL's offer to ITV of around £1.25.

Branson gofer Will Whitehorn fumed on behalf of his master, accusing Clan Murdoch of anti-competitive behaviour: "Sky has taken a stake in ITV in order to prevent a transformational deal that would have increased competition in the UK. This is a blatant breach, if not of the broadcasting legislation, then of the Enterprise Act."

He told the Sunday Times - ironically one of NewsCorp's several UK media properties: "My view is that there will be some writs flying. [NTL shareholders] have effectively been left with a lame-duck company."

But James Murdoch, papa's proxy at BskyB was silkiness personified, insisting that Sky intended to be a "supportive shareholder" in ITV, currently ailing and rudderless after the palace coup that ousted former ceo Charles Allen.

Murdoch minor opined that ITV's decline is "overstated" and that the right thing for the company to do is "to get on with the business of recruiting new leadership".

The 2003 Communications Act prevents BSkyB pursuing its own takeover of ITV, restricting its ownership to just 19.9%. But as a spoiling tactic it is a masterstroke, effectively depriving NTL of the competitive steroids of ITV ownership.

  • All of which has pushed into the background Friday's report of a possible ITV takeover bid by Bertelsmann-controlled broadcaster RTL Group.

    Data sourced from The Times Online (UK) and BBC Online; additional content by WARC staff