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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 17:33 GMT 18:33 UK
Buyers circle ITV Digital
Norwich vs Stockport match
TV audiences have been poor for league games
Possible buyers have begun circling ITV Digital, administrators for the collapsed broadcaster have told BBC News Online.

Representatives from Deloitte & Touche are talking to "two or three potential buyers", said a spokesman for the accountancy firm, without giving further details.

ITV Digital
1.26m subscribers
50:50 owned by Carlton and Granada
Losing 1m a day
A separate report said the Football League, owed 179m by ITV Digital in broadcasting rights, was among potential bidders.

The League is contemplating a joint bid with a broadcaster, sources told Reuters news agency.

Deloitte & Touche said it was "very surprised" by the reports.

The administrators have also been in talks on Tuesday with executives from the Independent Television Commission on how best to sell the loss-making ITV Digital business.

Earlier, Deloitte & Touche said it was giving itself until Thursday to find a buyer for the whole broadcaster, before breaking it up and selling its assets piecemeal.

BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas said ITV Digital customers would continue to receive the service during the sale process but that, even if a buyer were found, the brand name would disappear as it would not be offered as part of a deal.

'Very surprised'

ITV Digital went into administration last month, after failed attempts to renegotiate the broadcaster's deal with the Football League.

Now some football clubs fear the loss of the lucrative TV rights may put them out of business.

Football League chief executive David Burns
Burns: Still chasing Carlton and Granada

David Burns, chief executive of the Football League, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that further meetings were planned with ITV Digital's representatives this week.

But he said the clubs still wanted all they were entitled to.

He denied the League was being intransigent and repeated a call for ITV Digital's owners, Carlton and Granada, to stump up for the rights.

"They can afford to pay their debts, they're simply refusing to do so," he said.

Carlton and Granada have denied they are liable for their offspring's liabilities - a dispute which might eventually be decided in the courts.

Meanwhile, the administrators hope that, although ITV Digital has racked up heavy losses, its 1.26 million subscribers will prompt another broadcaster to buy its assets.

But few analysts think it will be possible to sell off the company as a going concern.

With the enterprise costing 1m a day, Carlton and Granada are keen to offload it and may have to pay someone to take it off their hands.

Buyers in the frame

Analysts have warned that potential buyout candidates are few and far between, either unlikely to succeed because of regulatory concerns or struggling with their own debt problems.

"BSkyB has ruled itself out, and the cable companies are hardly in a position to make an acquisition," said Graham Lovelace, head of the media consultancy Lovelacemedia.

ITV Digital timeline
1997, Jan: BSkyB, Carlton and Granada team form British Digital Broadcasting
1997, Jun: BSkyB told to quit project
1998, Aug: BDB renamed ONdigital
1998, Nov: ONdigital opens to viewers
1999, Jul: Boss Stephen Grabiner quits
2001, Apr: ITV Digital name revealed
2001, Sep: Sum invested hits 788m
2002, Feb: ITV Digital shake-up revealed
2002, Mar: Administrators called in
2002, Apr: Put up for sale

Ambitious European media giants such as Bertelsmann, RTL or Vivendi might come into the frame.

But latest speculation is that venture capital firms might be tempted to tread where traditional broadcasters would not, in the hope of turning the business around and selling it on for a profit.

The BBC cannot run a pay-TV service and so is in no position to take over ITV Digital as a going concern, media analysts said.

Dogged

ITV Digital, which broadcasts a digital signal through conventional TV antennae, failed to attract the anticipated number of subscribers, and was hit by a sharp downturn in advertising spending last year.

Audiences for its expensive Football League broadcasts failed to meet expectations.

ITV Digital was also dogged by patchy reception in some regions, and lost revenue due to the wide availability of pirated subscription cards.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Rory Cellan Jones
"The administrators are trying to sell it without the league licence"
Football League Chief Executive David Burns
"The League is not asking for anything other than that it is entitled to"
Bradford City Chairman Geoffrey Richmond
"The money has to come from Carlton and Granada"
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