Italy set for digital TV

Canal +, local heavyweights in consortium

PARIS — French pay television giant Canal Plus has cleared the way for the creation of an Italian digital TV consortium with heavyweight local backing from pubcaster RAI, Telecom Italia, Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset/Fininvest and Cecchi Gori Communications.

The partners signed a memorandum of understanding late Monday and expect to ink a definitive digital deal by Sept. 30.

With negotiations continuing on exactly what percentage of shares in the digital platform will be held by each partner, few details have yet been made available, but a joint statement from the partners said the project would be majority-owned by the Italians.

The digital platform will be built around Telepiu, the pay TV and digital broadcaster in which Canal Plus currently has a 90% stake — 45% acquired via the recent takeover of the NetHold group and 45% obtained from German powerhouse Kirch in exchange for Canal Plus’ 37.5% share in German pay TV service Premiere.

While the Italians look to be the major shareholders, it is almost certain that Canal Plus will be the main operator of the digital platform. Since the NetHold deal was announced last year, Canal Plus execs, headed by Michel Thoulouze, exec VP, international, have been cutting costs and restructuring at Telepiu in order to get ready for a re-launch in September.

The chief surprise of this latest digital maneuver is the presence of Cecchi Gori in the deal. Relations between Cecchi Gori and Berlusconi haven’t been top-notch in the past, but the Cecchi Gori group brings extensive film rights to the table.

The combo of Europe’s leading pay TV group Canal Plus and the heavyweight Italian partners now makes it a near certainty that anyone with rival digital plans for Italy will shelve them. As has become the custom in Europe, the partners stressed on Monday that their digital platform will be open to use by third-party operators. With antitrust authorities looking closely at all digital deals in Europe, nobody can afford to be seen to be blocking access to the digital future.

As for Telepiu, its three terrestrial channels now look as though they will become two, when current Italian legislation is completed. In the near future Telepiu 1 will be a Canal Plus-style premium channel, with Telepiu 2 multiplexing a similar film and sports offering and Telepiu 3 initially acting as a promo channel for the digital platform before eventually disappearing.

The new agreement may also extend beyond the Italian borders. According to the joint statement released on Monday, “cooperation will not be confined to Italy but may extend to other markets, notably the Mediterranean countries and Eastern Europe.”

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