Bidding war for station gets crowded

RTL enters fray with Planeta, Correo, Recoletos

MADRID — Europe’s biggest broadcaster, Bertelsmann’s RTL, has entered the fray for a controlling minority stake in Telefonica-owned Spanish station Antena 3.

The RTL Group already holds 17% of Antena 3.

RTL Group chief exec Gerhard Zeiler said Friday that the company is “willing to increase its stake in the private Spanish broadcaster either on its own or with a local partner.”

That partner would probably be another Antena 3 suitor, one of the Planeta, Correo or Recoletos publishing groups. RTL is believed to have talked informally to all three.

RTL teamed with local partners in the U.K., where it owns 65% of Five, and France, where it holds 47% of M6.

RTL’s bid to control or jointly manage Antena 3 comes just days after Telefonica was poised to close a deal for 29% of Antena 3 with Barcelona-based Planeta, one of Catalonia’s most important media groups.

That deal would have received thumbs up from Spain’s ruling Partido Popular, which is anxious to cozy up to Catalonia’s government in the run-up to general elections next year.

But Planeta reportedly failed to meet Telefonica’s asking price, which apparently values all of Antena 3 at 1.4 billion ($1.5 billion).

Telefonica prexy Cesar Alierta also faces a potentially severe Spanish press mauling or suits from shareholders if he appears to sell off Antena 3 cheaply and chummily without fielding other offers.

In a public show of doing the right thing by his shareholders, Alierta on Thursday invited concrete bids for 29% of Antena 3, and threatened to float the stake in the second half of the year if none came up to the mark.

Telefonica is already giving away the remainder of its 59% in Antena 3 — 30% — to Telefonica shareholders as a top-up dividend against 2002 results.

Those shares could trickle out to the open market.

Telefonica would not get much for an IPO of Antena 3, and the prospect of as much as 59% of Antena 3 being listed opens the door for RTL to use its financial clout to lap up shares with ease in a down market.

RTL’s annual revs — $4.7 billion for 2002 — are much larger than those of rival Spanish bidders.

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