Russian TV cloudy

Reports say station ownership changes possible

MOSCOW — Russia’s TV world Tuesday went into a new and unprecedented state of uncertainty — for what’s supposed to be the quiet month of August — as rumors circulated that stake holdings in the country’s two most influential stations shortly will undergo changes.

The fact that speculation over the future of tycoon Boris Berezovsky’s supposed 49% stake in Russia’s Channel 1 ORT (Russian Public Television) hit the agency wires the same time as speculation that rival Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most may agree a debt-for-equity swap with natural resources giant Gazprom may be no coincidence.

After Gusinsky’s unexpected release July 26 from criminal charges and his subsequent move to Spain, the rumors had been circulating that he had traded his freedom for relinquishing control of his flagship station NTV.

Conflicting coverage

Comment in leading business dailies Tuesday was ambiguous.

Independent paper Vedemosti led with a front-page story that charges against Gusinsky could be revived at any time, hinting that such news was being put out to keep Gusinsky guessing and effectively under Kremlin control.

Local paper Kommersant, owned by Berezovsky, suggested that Gusinsky had agreed to sell his major media interests to Gazprom and that all that remained were details of the deal.

According to this report, Gusinsky’s side asked for $350 million for his combined NTV — the station could return to relative profitability if local ad markets pick up — and Media-Most stakes (the latter is heavily indebted to foreign creditors through loans guaranteed by Gazprom).

Kommersant reported that the chief of Gazprom’s media subsid, Alfred Kokh, offered a starting price of $100 million for NTV, with no interest in related companies.

However, NTV vigorously rebuffed Kommersant’s story in its nightly newscast, which quoted a Media-Most statement that said Gusinsky’s aide Andrei Tsimailo, whom the story said had been conducting talks, had been on holiday since July 21.

On the other side of the coin, the future at ORT looks no less uncertain as agencies released interviews from Berezovsky on Tuesday that said he was considering passing control of his stake in Russia’s most widely watched channel back into state hands (NTV led the same night’s news report with the story).

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