Italo TV regs irk pay-TV channels

The future of Italian pay-TV channels Tele+ 1 and Tele+ 2 is up in the air yet again due to a package of new broadcasting regulations announced by the government Aug. 27.

The new rules, which still have to be passed by the Senate, force the two pay-TV channels to convert to satellite or cable transmission in one year’s time. Tele+ currently uses the same sort of system to deliver its service as its French cousin Canal Plus, namely scrambled terrestrial broadcasts. The move to satellite or cable is a radical one for Tele+, which has about 350,000 subscribers, since Italy has no cable system and satellite penetration is probably about 2%.

The new rules are an amendment to the 1990 TV law that was intended to put an end to the unregulated Wild West of Italo broadcasting, but lawmakers subsequently have found sorting out the airwaves a more difficult task than they had anticipated. For example, Tele+ started broadcasting in mid-1992 with no authorization whatsoever.

The latest regs, however, demonstrate a new, tougher regulatory approach on the part of telecommunications minister Maurizio Pagani. The days of legal laissez faire that permitted Silvio Berlusconi a free rein in this market seem to be over.

It’s not clear what effect the new rules will have on Tele+, if they pass, but the immediate reaction at the channel’s Milan headquarters was one of irritation. Tele+ managing director Mario Zanone Poma called the regulation “impossible to fulfill.

“We certainly can’t be responsible for laying cable throughout all of Italy,” said Zanone Poma.

Onus on subscribers

It’s more likely that the channel’s subscribers will have to buy themselves satellite dishes next year if they want to continue to receive the service. A stationary dish costs about $ 1,000 here. A movable or motorized one costs twice that amount. Tele+ is owned by a coalition of partners including Berlusconi (10 %), Leo Kirch (25%), Luxembourg-based bank CIT (25%), Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori (8%) and Gruppo Della Valle (25%).

Pagani rejected accusations from Tele+ that he was trying to “penalize” the pay-TV service.

“We’re not trying to ban pay TV. We’re trying to move its development towards its natural direction, which is cable and satellite, as demonstrated by other technologically advanced countries like the United States and Great Britain,” said Pagani at a press conference Aug. 27.

Other provisions in the new regulation are as follows:

o Only two, and not three, pay-TV licenses will be granted. Tele+ 1 (films) and Tele+ 2 (sports) are authorized to operate (albeit not terrestrially) but cultural channel Tele+ 3 will have to cease broadcasting altogether. That means that in addition to the two pay-TV channels, Italy will have six licensed national private webs: Berlusconi’s three networks, Telemontecarlo, Videomusic and Rete A.

o The pay-TV channels are not allowed to broadcast their signal “unscrambled” during primetime, nor can they air any advertising during the three hours each day that they are allowed to broadcast an unscrambled signal. This is valid, obviously, during the year thetwo channels are allowed to continue broadcasting terrestrially.

o The telcom ministry has three years to redesign the so-called “map of broadcasting frequencies” that serves as a blueprint for awarding local and national TV licenses. Until then, no new licenses will be awarded. Until the new blueprint is drawn up, however, channels operating without authorization (like ReteCapri) may continue to do so. This blueprint is important because there were so many unauthorized channels operating in Italy that the government didn’t have an accurate record of who was broadcasting on which frequency.

o License requirements for local channels (there are about 800 of them) have been made more rigorous. Channels must present license applications to the Ministry by Nov. 30. Hundreds of these tiny stations are expected to shut down under the weight of meeting the new rules.

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