ROME Will Silvio Berlusconi’s Endemol purchase, in partnership with its founder John de Mol, shake up Italy’s TV landscape by destabilizing the dynamics of the country’s notoriously entrenched duopoly?
The former Italo premier’s Mediaset media empire led the consortium that last week clinched the purchase of the Dutch content company. It acquired a 75% controlling stake in Europe’s second-largest TV producer, along with de Mol and Goldman Sachs’ private equity arm, for E2.63 billion ($3.6 billion).
But while the deal is the biggest in a decade for Italy’s top commercial web (which also controls Spain’s Telecinco), it immediately sounded alarm bells at RAI, the Italo pubcaster that is Mediaset’s main rival, and lately has grown heavily reliant on Endemol product.
“We are watching the situation closely,” RAI general manager Claudio Cappon says.
Meanwhile, Mediaset exec VP Piersilvio Berlusconi, Silvio’s son, quickly reassured Rome daily La Repubblica: “From now on I will personally root for RAI getting more of the top Endemol shows, and not certainly less (of them) than before.”
RAI has long carved up the Italo market pretty evenly with Mediaset — each three- channel web drawing roughly 45% of overall ratings for years. The pubcaster has a three-year, $162 million contract with Endemol through 2008, which includes “Deal or No Deal” and a host of other local heavy-hitters; fare ranges from cooking to talkshows, to top-rated domestic drama “Montalbano.”
Even Mediaset chairman Fedele Confalonieri hastened to chime that, “it would be crazy of us to withhold Endemol shows from RAI.”
But veteran RAI exec Giovanni Minoli, along with lots of other Italians — be they industry insiders or just regular TV viewers — wasn’t buying it.
“RAI’s top-rated programs are basically now owned by Mediaset,” says Minoli, chief of the RAI Educational unit.
An informal poll in the left-leaning La Repubblica showed that 96% of its readers thought the Endemol deal would “inevitably penalize RAI.”
Minoli and others are now urging a radical change in RAI’s programming philosophy, clamoring for a major shift toward investments in inhouse productions with a more public service bent than “Skating With Celebrities” or “Celebrity Survivor,” even if the move would result in a dramatic ratings drop.
Berlusconi meddling with RAI’s affairs is, of course, nothing new in Italy.
The media mogul and former premier is known to have had a say in executive appointments at the pubcaster when he was in power.
Just as the Endemol deal was sealed, a conflict-of-interest law was proposed, aiming to force Berlusconi (and any other pol with more than $20 million in assets) to place those assets in a blind trust before taking office. The bill is considered to have an uphill battle in Italy’s parliament, where the shaky center-left government has a razor thin majority.
Italian legislators also have media legislation on the agenda that would introduce a cap on advertising whereby no TV company could earn more than 45% of the available advertising coin. The proposed new rules would also open airwave space by forcing both Mediaset and RAI to transfer one of their channels to satellite and DTT.
The media bill, which Confalonieri has complained would cost Mediaset $1 billion, is said to have been among chief considerations that prompted Berlusconi to diversify into Endemol and gain a hook into 22 other markets.
In tandem with the media law, Italo Communications Minister Paolo Gentiloni has been pushing a RAI reform that would make public service, rather than ratings, a priority at the pubcaster. Part of the idea is to run more cultural programs, such as Roberto Benigni reading cantos from Dante’s Divine Comedy, in primetime.
RAI’s reconfiguration is expected to gain momentum in the aftermath of the Endemol deal, hailed by Gentiloni as “a success, and a driver toward the diversification we must encourage.”
Mediaset instead should start wondering how much Endemol product it will be able to absorb.