French private broadcasting groups TF1 and M6 are considering joining forces with Pathe in order to acquire Vivendi Universal's Canal Plus Group, a source 'close to the deal' told French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur.

TF1's chairman Patrick Le Lay and M6's president Nicolas de Tavernost have already both voiced their interest in acquiring Vivendi Universal's European pay-TV group, in the event that it would be put up for sale. The Canal Plus group, which holds a 49% stake in French pay-TV channel Canal Plus SA, also includes Canal Plus'digital platform CanalSatellite.

TF1 and M6 are partners in CanalSatellite's competitor, the TF1-controlled Television Par Satellite (TPS).

"TF1's objective is to be a leader, as a free-TV and a pay-TV operator, in the years to come." Le Lay told French magazine L'Expansion last week. French regulations allow TF1 and M6, both free-TV broadcasters, to hold only 15% of the channel Canal Plus, which explains the need for a non-broadcasting partner such as Pathe - but they can own 100% of CanalSatellite (currently 66% owned by the Canal plus group and 34% by media and defence group Lagardere). The two digital operations could then be merged. "Two major operators cannot exist together." Le Lay said in the same interview.

The deal would make sense for TF1, which is currently stepping up its film activities. The group recently launched a joint French distribution venture with Miramax International and would get access to StudioCanal's massive film library of over 5000 titles.