Cable companies NTL and Telewest are fighting to cling on to their share in the UKTV joint venture, after The BBC indicated it would rather set up a new partnership, possibly with a US broadcaster.
The future control of the lucrative channels lies behind a decision by the firms to change the terms of their proposed cable merger, so that technically Telewest will now take over NTL.
Although the companies have said that changing of the smallprint of the merger will make no different to the future make up of the company, which they still hope to merge with Richard Branson's company Virgin Mobile, NTL said it believes it means the proposed merger will now no longer trigger a change of ownership rules concerning UKTV, home of successful channels including UK Gold and UK History.
However, Media Week understands that talks between the BBC and other potential partners are still, as one corporation source put it, "alive" , led by BBC Worldwide chief operating officer John Smith. Discovery, Viacom, AOL Time Warner and Sony are all possible contenders. American investment in UKTV could help boost the BBC's global expansion plans, particularly in the US. A string of UK companies, including Five and BskyB, would also like to get their hands on the UKTV channels, as well as the rest of Telewest's content arm Flextech, especially its flagship channel Living.
NTL, however, appears determined to build its content in the ultra competitive digital TV business. It yesterday announced that US cable industry veteran, Stephen Burch, of American giant Comcast, would be joining the company next month to take over from NTL boss Simon Duffy as chief executive.
Although some have criticised the timing of the move, at such a crucial peiod for the company, Burch is seen by others as having the proven track record to take NTL into next years platform battle with the likes of BskyB, Freeview and NTL. Duffy will become executive vice-chairman but the company has strongly denied he is being sidelined. One of Burch's first taks will be to negotiate with Smith over the UKTV deal.