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Branson: Virgin still wants ITV

Satdude

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Branson: Virgin still wants ITV

Sir Richard Branson has signalled that cable group Virgin Media has not abandoned its ambitious plans to buy ITV.

Sir Richard, Virgin Media's largest shareholder, also suggested his Virgin group would retain its 10.5% stake if the cable company is sold.

Speaking today from his home in Oxfordshire at the launch of Virgin 1 channel, Sir Richard was asked about recent takeover approaches from private equity groups and what a sale would mean for the Virgin Media brand.

"I think it's extremely unlikely the Virgin brand would ever be withdrawn from Virgin Media and we never said that we'd be selling our shares," Sir Richard said. "I think if anybody wanted to buy Virgin Media it would be because it's got the brand."

Sir Richard said he was not sure he could comment on any fresh plans to take over ITV for regulatory reasons. However, when asked if ITV remained a long-term goal for Virgin, he replied: "We'll just have to sort of watch this space."

Virgin's attempt to buy ITV last year was spurned by the broadcaster's board, but was effectively scuppered before any formal response came through when rival BSkyB snapped up a 17.9% stake in ITV.

The shock £940m swoop is now the subject of an investigation by the Competition Commission, after Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading flagged up public interest and competition concerns. The enterprise secretary, John Hutton, will rule on the stake in the new year.

Sky and Virgin are also at loggerheads over their failure to strike a deal over the cost of each other's channels.

Sky's basic channels have been missing from the Virgin platform since March because the two companies could not agree on a price, and the acrimonious row is to go to court.

"If you have a gun held to your head and you give in the first time around you are likely to get a gun held to your head a second time around," Sir Richard commented today. "And sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand."

He said the competition authorities would have to decide if Sky had behaved anti-competitively.

He added: "We believe the approach was tantamount to blackmail at the time, or at least anti-competitive. And we decided not to give in to it."

Sir Richard said that he would like the new Virgin 1 channel to get more viewers than Sky One, adding: "Sky One isn't exactly shining."

However, the Virgin Media major shareholder said he would like the company to improve customer service. "I'd like it to be a hell of a lot better," he said.

Sir Richard also said that it was likely that his space venture Virgin Galactic would work with Virgin Media on some kind of reality show.

When asked if the winner of a reality show could win a trip into space with Virgin Galactic he said it was "quite likely, it could well exist".

Regards Satdude.