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NTV not cooking with Gaz

Co. may not be able to afford running costs

MOSCOW — As Russia’s leading commercial channel NTV launches fall skeds this week with 80% new programming, rumors in the Russian capital are rife that the station’s owner, natural resources giant Gazprom, wants to shed part of its holding.

Gazprom took control of NTV in mid-April after a fierce, politically tinged battle with station founder Vladimir Gusinsky’s Media-Most. It cemented control in late July when Gazprom redeemed a $262 million loan to Credit Suisse First Boston which Media-Most had not repaid.

In return for the settlement, Gazprom received another 19% of NTV stock, taking its stake to 65%, as well as an additional 25% in 23 other Media-Most companies, as a result of which it now holds majority stakes.

However, many are speculating that Gazprom won’t foot the bill for the channel’s estimated $7 million-a-month running costs. NTV’s annual spend, including new projects in development, is rumored to be around $125 million.

That figure is significantly higher than the target set earlier in the summer by NTV exec Boris Jordan, who forecast budget cuts to keep NTV’s expenditure to around $70 million.

So far, three players are believed to be interested in taking a 25% stake from Gazprom. Deutsche Bank, a broker in the failed negotiations between Gazprom and Gusinsky, is one, though the Kremlin is said to be uneasy about a foreign player owning part of one of Russia’s national broadcasters.

On the home front, there’s interest from Alfa Bank, which extended a $12 million stabilizing credit to NTV after the April takeover, and has extensive TV investments in Russia and Ukraine. Also tipped is territory’s Intl. Industrial Bank.

NTV bosses are said to be against a stock sale, given that income from local advertising markets is rising rapidly. A recent survey from Moscow-based Gallup Adfact saw TV leading the recovery, with predicted growth for the year running as high as 85%.

Though NTV’s cash flow looks healthier, its relations with the country’s political authorities — said by many to be the main reason for Gusinsky’s downfall — is still sticky.

Meanwhile, programming director Tatiana Mitkova, an NTV veteran who didn’t leave the channel in April with many of her colleagues, says authorities had limited the station’s ability to gather news from the war in Chechnya and the Kursk nuclear submarine recovery.

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