TV mega-marriage is worth $1.5 billion

Madrid– There will be mergers in a period of four-to-six months and we want to marry,” Jose Miguel Contreras, CEO of Spanish broadcaster La Sexta, declared in March 2009, referring to Spain’s crowded TV market.

Twenty months later, La Sexta is still waiting at the altar, while rival broadcasters Telecinco and Cuatro have tied the knot in a deal valued at $1.5 billion.

On Nov. 10, Spain’s antitrust authority, the National Competition Commission (CNC), greenlit the biggest merger and acquisition deal in Spanish TV history.

First announced last December, the uber-deal sees Mediaset-owned Telecinco take over smaller network Cuatro via a share swap in which Cuatro gets 18.3% of a combined Telecinco-Cuatro holding, valued at $764.5 million.

Telecinco also will pay $718.6 million for a 22% chunk of satcaster Digital Plus, Spain’s dominant pay TV platform.

Both Cuatro and Digital Plus are owned by cash-strapped media conglom Prisa.

Telecinco has met a number of conditions set by the CNC, including one that seemed to put a wrench in the works: Neither Telecinco nor phone giant Telefonica, which took 22% of Digital Plus last December, can name Digital Plus’ management or veto its strategy. That decisionmaking is left to Prisa.

The antitrust ruling will make it more difficult for Telecinco and Telefonica to co-ordinate and manage key rights, such as pricey soccer, across their pay TV and free-to-air channels.

The deal, however, transforms both Telecinco and the Spanish TV landscape.

Cuatro will continue broadcasting its four channels, with Telecinco set to co-ordinate acquisitions.

That isn’t likely to affect Cuatro’s hard-earned status as the place for upscale international TV series such as “House” and “Pillars of the Earth.”

Bowing Sept. 14, “Pillars” built ratings gold for Cuatro’s core channel — a 24.7 share and 4.2 million viewers; Cuatro’s average September share was 7.5.

But the deal takes a frequent buyer of U.S. series off the market. In 2009, for example, Cuatro inked a first-option deal with Disney on two out of three Disney series a year.

Telecinco already holds TV volume deals with Disney, NBC Universal and CBS-Paramount.

“Telecinco now has two important channels to manage. So the future will probably see Telecinco sign more volume deals, rather than acquire specific content from the six majors,” says an analyst. “Also I’m expecting contents costs to come down because of less competition.”

In a major antitrust limitation, CNC banned Telecinco from selling advertising inventories across its own channels and Cuatro’s as well.

Such a limitation will have a far greater effect on the merged entity than would limits on TV content acquisitions, says Adrian Zunzunegui, an analyst at Iberian Equities. “The CNC’s ad limitations will delay Cuatro raising ad prices to Telecinco levels.”

Even so, given Telecinco’s larger ad market share, the deal is expected to benefit Telecinco’s bottom-line.

The concentration in the TV sector has two losers, broadcasters Antena 3 and La Sexta.

La Sexta’s controlling shareholder, Mediapro, slammed the CNC’s Nov. 10 greenlight of the Telecinco-Telefonica-Prisa deal as “creating a monopoly unequalled in Europe.” It will appeal the CNC ruling.

La Sexta and Antena 3 now need to ally, probably by pooling their shareholdings, to face off with Spain’s new TV giant, Telecinco.

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