Spanish TV biz reels at Conde exit

The dramatic fall of Mario Conde, dismissed two weeks ago as president of the crisis-hit Spanish bank Banesto, has sent tremors of apprehension through the country’s television industry.

Conde, a flamboyant figure who was touted as a possible prime minister candidate, emerged as a would-be media mogul in the early 1990s when Banesto started investing in newspapers and TV companies, notably the private web Antena 3, of which the bank is thought to own 25%.

In recent months, Antena 3’s ratings success has been one of the few bright spots on the generally gloomy broadcasting scene. Web execs say the Banesto crisis won’t interrupt its progress. But its finances and ownership structure have always been clouded in obscurity, and no one is sure what the investigation into the bank’s dealings could uncover.

The crisis broke Dec. 28, when the Bank of Spain forcibly took control of Banesto and dismissed the entire board following rumors that the bank was about to collapse. Reports suggest that Banesto needs at least $ 3 billion to rebuild its balance sheet, which is crumbling under the excess weight of doubtful loans and cavalier investments. Banesto’s media holdings look likely to be entrusted to one of the other four big Spanish banks.

In 1992, Banesto teamed with Zeta and, it seemed, Rupert Murdoch to acquire 48% of Antena 3; their stake later increased to 72%.

Spanish law prevents a single company from owning more than 25% of a private TV station, and it was widely assumed that the three partners divided the shares equally among them.

But according to News Intl. sources, Murdoch’s stake has been quietly sold at a loss. This appears to mean that, behind the tangle of holding companies which officially own stakes in Antena 3, Zeta and Banesto alone may control 72% of the station, far beyond the legal limit. This might explain the urgency of their attempts to bring in major new shareholders, such as Venezuela’s Venevision group and Mexican TV giant Televisa. The Banesto crisis may finally bring the truth to light and force restructuring.

Interestingly, under Zeta boss Antonio Asensio, Antena 3 has enjoyed its greatest success since it launched four years ago. His willingness to invest serious money in homegrown shows has paid off, with the channel leapfrogging over its main commercial rival Tele Cinco to challenge pubcaster TVE for the top position.

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