British Sky Broadcasting, which is currently considering a giant European consolidation with acquisitions of Sky Italia and Sky Deutschland, has sold shares
in UK rival ITV for £481m.
The move puts ITV in play as a takeover target, according to analysts, although Liberty has said it does not intend to make a bid, which implies a six-month moratorium under takeover rules.
Sky has disposed of a 6.4% stake in ITV to US-based Liberty Global, which has been active in the UK of late with the purchase of Virgin Media last year and a joint takeover with Discovery Communications of All3media in May this year.
Virgin tried to buy ITV nearly a decade ago and, noted analysts at Liberum, the rationale for a deal at that time presumably still exists now, with ITV providing access to a growing library of content via its ITV Studios business, plus customers, strong branding and financial engineering.
Liberty Chief Executive Mike Fries said: "This is an opportunistic and attractive investment for us in our largest cable market. ITV is the leading commercial broadcaster in the UK and we're excited to be shareholders."
Sky, which originally bought a 17.9% stake in the broadcaster and producer in 2006 but had pared it back to 7.2% before Thursday's sale, said it intended to use the proceeds for general corporate purposes.
Says Liberum: "While Liberty has said it does not intend to make a bid for ITV, it does reserve the right to do so and it is hard to see how this will not be looked at as anything other than Liberty planting a flag in the ground for a potential acquisition at some point - or, at least, looking to block another bidder. However, if there is a bid, we think it is unlikely to be anytime soon."
The broker does not think any eventual bid for ITV would be likely to be blocked on regulatory grounds as they operate in two separate markets and Virgin would be made to guarantee access to the ITV channel to competitors.
"Needless to say, the shares will now be seen as a M&A play and therefore expect a strong reaction today."
Investec added that takeover speculation will now be a key part of the investment case at ITV, even though Liberty's bid denial means it will be restricted for six months unless another player appears.
"The key question," wonders Investec, "is whether this move implies a 100% Liberty Media acquisition of ITV in time - is it happy at just 6.4%?
"Given recent Liberty Global M&A appetite, we see speculation of further M&A as almost inevitable mid-term implying ITV shares are likely to be valued more on a take-over basis."
Shares in ITV were up 6.96% to 196.6p at 09:45 on Thursday, while Sky was up 0.17% at 891.5p.