Duncan warns of ITV-BSkyB 'undue influence'

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LONDON -- Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan has warned that ITV and BSkyB may exert "undue influence" in such areas as program acquisitions and sports rights in the wake of their tie-up last week.

Duncan, speaking at a Broadcast Press Guild lunch in London, described BSkyB's purchase of a 17.9% stake in ITV last Friday as "bold, smart and surprising move."

But he questioned Sky's stated position as a "sleeping partner" in ITV, and said regulators will have to watch closely whether ITV's corporate strategy changed direction because of the deal.

"We'd question any sort of co-operation and want to know if it makes it more likely that agreed deals could be done on acquired American programming or sports rights," he said.

"In any normal company, if your largest shareholder has an 18% stake, then you check out with them key strategic moves and that shareholder makes its views known," Duncan added, pointing out that ITV shareholders with significantly smaller stakes have nonetheless played key roles in hiring and firing ITV senior managers.

"The truth is, if ITV and Sky do link too strongly together it becomes a very dominant powerful force in British television and leaves the likes of Channel 4 feeling pretty small and pretty vulnerable."

Duncan said there are public interest and competition areas that need to be looked at "properly" by government and regulators.

"You put ITV and Sky together and it's a huge, huge chunk of British television and the sorts of things we are concerned about are advertising," he said, pointing out that ITV and Sky together control more than 50% of the U.K. television advertising market.

Elsewhere Channel 4 announced that it was re-launching its E4.com Web site as a social networking site that will allow viewers to send in online auditions for such shows as "Big Brother."

Users will be able to send in their own video, rate clips and share files on the site, Duncan said.
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