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Reg rejig morphs broadcasters

New megaplayer likely to take helm of Antena 3

MADRID — TV deregulation has kick-started an ownership makeover in Spanish commercial broadcasting.

The stake shake has already tightened Italian media magnate and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s grip around coin-rich Telecinco.

It will almost certainly confirm the emergence of a powerful new local megaplayer at the helm of Antena 3.

Last December, Spain’s ruling Popular Party abolished ownership limits in a single private broadcaster and banned companies from owning more than one web, be it national or local.

The reg rejig is morphing private broadcasting.

Last week, the European Union antitrust watchdog allowed Berlusconi’s Mediaset to up its stake in Telecinco to 52%, after buying 12% from blue-chip Spanish regional publisher, the Correo Group.

The thumbs-up was expected: Mediaset has run Telecinco since its 1990 launch as part of a three-way combo including Germany’s now bankrupt Kirch and the Correo Group.

Now Mediaset can pursue its profit-driven goals all the more aggressively: a forceful targeting of urban 15-45 demos; a select acquisition of the few U.S. shows which work in primetime, such as recent hit “C.S.I.”; a deepening of its suc-cessful film production op; the maintenance of newscasts, which have hiked auds 20% to 3.1 million during the Iraq War.

Meanwhile, Telefonica is regulation bound to dispose of its 59% Antena 3 stake.

This is sparked by the digital TV merger, which left Telefonica as a shareholder in two commercial TV license holders: Sogecable’s premium paybox Canal Plus Espana and Antena 3.

Telefonica surprised analysts last month by revealing that it was giving away half of its Antena 3 stake to its share-holders as a top-up dividend against 2002 results.

Its remaining stake would be floated or sold, Telefonica sources declared. The latter now looks more likely and Telefonica may even have come to a decision by its April 11 annual meeting.

Per reports, Bertelsmann’s RTL Group could lap up some of those shares once they are traded on the open market, raising its stake in Antena 3 from 17% to some 25%.

Three Spanish groups are also circling Telefonica’s remaining 29% in Antena 3: Correo, Pearson-owned publishing house Recoletos, and publisher and media group Planeta.

Planeta has already held lengthy take-over talks with Telefonica.

The purchase would make strategic sense. Planeta has ambitious plans to expand its film production and distribution ops. Both involve less risk if it has a guaranteed TV outlet for product.

Telefonica and Planeta are said to be haggling over the asking price. The telco values Antena 3 at c1.4 billion ($1.5 billion), Planeta appears to be approaching that price, which could open the door to a joint Planeta-RTL bid.

Antena 3 posted a $38.7 million operating loss last year. “From a strictly commercial sense, Antena 3 would be a good buy if it does not cost much money,” says Enrique Jimenez, an analyst at Ibersecurities.

But money may be the last considerations. Politics may count for more.

The new Antena 3 owner will need the blessing of the Spanish government.

Ploughing a nationalist and pro-governmental line in its newscasts, Antena 3 is a jewel in the media crown of Spain’s ruling Partido Popular.

Recoletos prexy Jaime Castellanos reportedly has a strained relations with the government.

The Partido Popular may need to depend on Catalunya’s ruling CiU party if it loses its absolute majority in next year’s general elections.

Based out of the Catalan capital of Barcelona, Planeta is an iconic Catalan media group. Its conquest of Antena 3 would be a sizable political olive branch.

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