Berlusconi bill lets RAI-3 collect advertising coin

ROME — In a move being blasted as Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s most blatant conflict of interest, the Italian government has passed a decree that will save his Mediaset channel Rete 4 from a court-ordered blackout.

The stopgap measure, which expires April 30, also will allow pubcaster RAI’s RAI-3 to continue to collect advertising coin.

The original supreme court ruling would have forced Mediaset to move Rete 4, one of its three terrestrial channels, to satellite or to close it down, while RAI was supposed to downsize. Both companies had until Jan. 1 to comply with the media legislation.

“This decree confirms how gigantic the conflict of interest is in our country,” opposition leader Pietro Fassino declared. “It doesn’t get much worse than this.”

The tailor-made decree follows a failed attempt by the government to push through parliament a new media bill that would have overridden the court ruling and averted the blackout.

Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi last week rejected that controversial media law, which in addition to allowing Mediaset and RAI to hold on to their three channels would have raised the cap on advertising revenue and also allowed cross-ownership of TV stations and newspapers from 2009.

Ciampi is expected to sign off on the decree and — under Italian law — will be forced to approve the media bill after it is re-examined by parliament next year.

In related news, Italy’s broadcasters are testing the digital waters ahead of the shutdown of the analog signal in 2007.

On Dec. 1, Mediaset launched its first multiplex, including six channels: Rete4; financial service Sole24Ore, belonging to Italy’s top financial daily; Class News, produced by Milan-based publisher Class; Coming Soon TV, a film channel produced by Italo film org Anica; Match Music’s music service VJ Television; and BBC World.

Mediaset’s second multiplex will bow next year. It also is testing interactive services in 1,500 households in Varese, near Milan.

RAI will launch two DTT multiplexes early next year carrying its three analog channels plus satellite services RAI News, RAI Sports and RAI Educational, already aired by paybox Sky Italia.

In the next few months, RAI will start testing its interactive programming with 2,000 households in Turin.

Telecom Italia, which controls national TV channels La7 and MTV Italia, will launch one multiplex in 2004 and is testing a wide range of interactive programming in seven cities.

Digital terrestrial TV will be available to half the Italian population and will require adapted TV sets or decoders.

(Cecilia Zecchinelli in Milan contributed to this report).

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