Rules raise cap on ad revs, allow TV cross-ownership

ROME — A controversial media law that will benefit Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset has been passed in the Italian Senate by the TV-tycoon-turned-prime minister’s conservative majority.

The bill will allow Mediaset to hold on to its three channels, one of which was supposed to go off air in January under previous legislation.

The new rules will also raise the cap on advertising revenue, and permit cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers starting in 2009.

Italy’s opposition — which is calling the new law a Christmas present from Berlusconi to himself — is urging Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi not to sign the bill, an act which is usually no more than a formality.

“This is a terrible law that will make it even more difficult for this country to have a plurality of media players,” said center-left leader Piero Fassino. “The news and advertising markets will become more confined to the hands of few, making the Italian market’s current anomaly even worse.”

Berlusconi’s $7.8 billion personal holding company Fininvest, which includes Mediaset, Medusa Film, the Mondadori publishing group with some 50 magazines, and the Jumpy Internet portal, accounts for more than half of Italy’s advertising market.

Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri has countered criticism claiming the new law looks to the future, saying terrestrial digital TV will multiply the number of channels and open the market to new players.

The so-called Gasparri law sees Italy shifting to terrestrial digital by 2006, a date most experts think is too optimistic.

“Mediaset has not been given any presents,” said Mediaset President Fedele Confalonieri. “Critics are saying the law is against freedom. In truth, it reflects a shift toward terrestrial digital TV that was initiated by the previous center-left government.”

Under the new law, pubcaster RAI should also begin partial privatization next year when its board will be renewed and enlarged from five to nine members.

RAI prexy Lucia Annunziata, one of the law’s most vocal opponents, and the pubcaster’s current board members are expected to step down soon.

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