Italians go to the polls June 11 to vote on four crucial TV referenda, including one that could privatize part of pubcaster RAI and three others that could radically alter Silvio Berlusconi’s Fininvest webs.
It will be the first time ever, anywhere, that the future of a national TV industry is put in the hands of the people. The reason: Italy’s political forces were unable to find a compromise on a reform of their media law. While Italy’s Parliament got bogged down in interminable haggling over the issues, citizens collected the 1 million signatures necessary to call a national referendum.
The three votes that affect Berlusconi’s media holdings, if passed, could take a sizable chunk out of his near-monopoly of commercial television.
If the voters say ‘si,’ Italy’s TV tycoon and former premier will be forced to relinquish two of his three national networks, his advertising arm Publitalia will be limited to supplying ads for no more than two channels, and the number of ad breaks during the airing of films will be cut.
Berlusconi, whose TV channels have about a 45% market share (more or less the same as RAI’s), calls these national votes an act of terrorism by his “Communist enemies,” who want to destroy him and Fininvest.
Late last week most Fininvest employees took a day off to march in Rome to show their support for the TV tycoon – and a ‘non’ vote in the referenda.
While the outcome of the media referenda is still uncertain, most observers think that voters – bombarded by propaganda for a no vote on Berlusconi’s three webs – will not approve them.
Since Berlusconi clearly intends to remain in politics, the sale of part of his media interests seems highly probable in any case – whatever the outcome of the referenda – because it would put an end to questions of a conflict of interest between his business affairs and his political responsibilities.
Berlusconi has in fact had widely publicized talks with international investors, including Rupert Murdoch and Saudi prince Al Walid ben Talal, to sell part of Fininvest’s TV and advertising business. There’s also talk that parts of his media holdings could be offered on the stock market.