ITV plc (ITVPF) may have added more fuel to the takeover speculation which has surrounded Britain's biggest private, free-to-air broadcaster Wednesday with news that its long-serving CEO, Adam Crozier, will step down next month.
"Adam has been talking to me and the Board for some time now about his future plans," said chairman Peter Bazalgette. "He has made a fantastic contribution to ITV and the Board is deeply indebted to him for his strong leadership and personal dedication in very successfully turning around the business."
The move may have more important implications for the takeover talk that has gripped the shares since Liberty Global (LBTYA) , its biggest shareholder, was thought to be building its stake in the company after a regulatory filing to the London Stock Exchange on March 31 indicated Goldman Sachs (GS) held 25% of ITV thanks to a series of derivative and contracts-for-difference trades.
Liberty said on March 29 that it loaned its 9.9% stake to Goldman Sachs, "but at the same time it has acquired an interest in an equal number of ordinary shares under that transaction as a result of the right to recall," according to a regulator filing.
Goldman's stake now sits at 22%, according to the most recent filing, but that reduction hasn't stopped speculation that a sale of the business could be on the cards.
"We do not see the (Crozier) news as sudden in nature nor indicating that ITV is facing major disappointments,"said Ian Whittaker at Liberum Capital. "However we do think this could potentially be a sign that ITV might be heading for a sale. Keep as Top BUY."
Whittaker sugggested that Liberty could work in partnership with Discovery Communications (DISCA) to buy ITV as both have a history of acquiring free-to-air broadcasters in Europe and recently acted as a pair to acquire All3 Media.
Earlier this spring, ITV beat expectations for full-year results in March but warned investors of a steeper than previously anticipated dip in TV advertising revenues during the first four months of the year, due to the current economic uncertainty in the U.K.
The proliferation of digital streaming services has led to structural upheaval for free to air broadcasters like ITV, as advertising budgets are increasingly split between traditional channels and an ever larger number of digital mediums, all of which offer companies a means of engaging with consumers.
Crozier's departure might mean ITV becomes more open to the idea of a takeover while the lack of a replacement could also mean it becomes vulnerable to a bid.
Liberty Global, through its ownership of Virgin Media, has more than 5 million customers and substantial cable and pay-tv assets in the U.K.
However, Rupert Murdoch's Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) bid for the remaining majority stake in leading pay-tv broadcaster, Sky (SKYAY) , that it does not already own could mean Sky will soon have the backing of a much larger balance sheet, leading it to become more aggressive on prices and to invest more in content.
For this reason, analysts have repeatedly looked for an ITV bid from Liberty, s acquiring the free to air broadcaster could help Virgin Media to better compete with a more aggressive Sky, Europe's biggest pay-TV company.
ITV shares were marked 0.8% lower by 1330 BST and changing hands at 209.8 pence each, around the same level the stock was trading before the Goldman filing on March 31.