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Telco nabs Antena 3

Spain's Telefonica nabs channel in surprise move

MADRID — In a dramatic, unexpected raid, Spanish telco Telefonica has bought the country’s top-rated private TV channel, Antena 3 TV (A3TV), moving in association with banks Santander and Central Hispano.

Telefonica now figures as a key film and TV player in Spain with its tentacles reaching into free-to-air broadcasting, digital satellite delivery (through Via Digital), film production (through a proposed co-financing pact with producer Andres Vicente Gomez), and cable, where it will own MSOs throughout Spain from 1998.

According to Eduardo Alonso, director of Telefonica Multimedia, the purchase of Antena 3 TV dovetails into the telco’s global strategy.

“Telefonica aims to be a global service provider. It has to participate in the content industry and Antena 3 TV is an important buyer, producer and distributor of content,” Alonso told Daily Variety.

The acquisition also marks the exit of A3TV president Antonio Asensio, who has sold his stake to the new partners.

No price was available for the purchase.Telefonica also has purchased 51% in Asensio-owned soccer rights broker Gestora de Medios Audiovisuales (GMA).

The news fell like a bombshell Thursday in Spain, leaving industryites trying to figure out where the purchase leaves the digital battle between Via Digital, in which Telefonica has a lead 35% stake, and rival CanalSatelite Digital (CSD), in which Antena 3 holds 15%. (Media conglom holds the other 85%.)

One reading is that Telefonica its looking to spur a single digital platform; another that Telefonica’s lightning raid on Antena 3 TV represents a step-up in its hostilities toward Sogecable, particularly regarding Spanish pay-per-view soccer rights.

The top-rating commercial channel in Spain, mainly through valiant investment in local fiction production, Antena 3 still shoulders an estimated $259.9 million in short- or long-term debt.

Antena 3 posted $35.9 million net profits for 1996, but with the broadcaster valued officially at $613 million, “Asensio was offered a good price and decided to take it,” one source said.

But the key issue, as ever in Spain, remains soccer. Earlier this year Sogecable and GMA, now controlled by Telefonica, teamed to form joint Spanish soccer-rights broker Audiovisual Sports (AS). As a new partner in AS, Telefonica may be able to negotiate some soccer rights for its platform Via Digital, Alonso suggested.

This may not be easy, however. Both Sogecable and Spain’s Socialist opposition regard Telefonica as an instrument of its ruling conservative party. Telefonica privatized its last state shares in February, but prexy Juan Villalonga is a lifetime friend of President Jose Maria Aznar.

Sogecable has reacted suspiciously to Telefonica’s entry into Audiovisual Sports, interpreting this as an attempt by the telco to muscle in on pay-per-view rights to Spanish soccer games, which in January CSD bought in exclusivity until 2003.

A recent Sports Transmission Law forces CSD to sell off some of its PPV rights within a year. But for the moment, “CSD has an exclusivity over PPV soccer rights in Spain and what has just happened (to Antena 3 TV) does not change this,” said Jaume Ferrus, CSD director.

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