Prez Ciampi won't rescue Mediaset

ROME — It’s been a tough week for Italy’s Prime Minister and TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

He failed to usher in the new constitution as prexy of the European Union under its six-month rotating system; his AC Milan soccer team lost the Intercontinental Cup final; and — to top it all off — Italy’s head of state, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, refused to sign a new law bolstering Berlusconi’s Mediaset networks.

The media bill would have put Mediaset’s three stations, Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete 4, on a legal footing. It also would have raised the advertising cap that now limits the main revenue stream of Europe’s most profitable broadcaster. Mediaset posted more than $500 million in pre-tax profit for the first nine months of this year.

And critics allege it would have concentrated media power in the hands of one man — Berlusconi.

Mediaset’s three webs have been broadcasting thanks to legal loopholes ever since 1984 when they were rescued by then Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, a Berlusconi crony, from a court-ordered blackout issued because they were operating in the absence of a TV law.

Now, for Rete 4, the threat of a blackout is once again real.

Under Italy’s current law, private TV players are not allowed to own more than two stations.

The country’s Supreme Court has ruled that Rete 4, Mediaset’s least popular channel, must shift to satellite by Jan. 1. The new media bill would have swept away this ruling.

The irony is that, to keep Rete 4 on the air, Berlusconi will have to enact a law decree saving it himself.

Mediaset is making no bones about it. “There are eight working days left until the Supreme Court deadline,” the country’s top commercial broadcaster warned Dec. 16, urging the “political and institutional establishment to intervene.” It has also stressed that Rete 4’s closure could cause roughly 1,000 layoffs.

But Berlusconi is confident the crisis will blow over.

The Prime Minister said he would not read President Ciampi’s assessment of the rejected bill. He has brushed aside criticism, saying that “anyone who claims that in Italy there is no pluralism, both in TV and in the press, should be booed big time.”

He claims the bill will usher in an explosion of terrestrial digital channels. He has also said he “doesn’t think” there is a risk of closure for Rete 4.

Yet, despite the power Berlusconi has come to wield since entering politics in 1994 (to, as he put it, “save Italy from the Communists”) it’s not a given that he will be able to perform the political feat that Mediaset now needs.

Ciampi believes the bill is illegal since it does not take into account the Supreme Court rulings. The president also says that easing limitations on channels and advertising doesn’t guarantee a level playing field at a time when Italy is not equipped with the terrestrial digital technology that will expand the feevee market.

Therefore, some experts think Ciampi could refuse to countersign Berlusconi’s stopgap decree.

“We have reached the peak of a huge anomaly, the full explosion of a conflict of interest that, up until now, Berlusconi and his government have not wanted — or been able — to deal with,” lamented an editorial in the left-leaning La Repubblica paper.

But Ciampi must — under Italy’s political system — sign the media bill after it is reexamined by parliament next year.

Meanwhile, Italians are staying tuned.

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