Italo mogul-politician rises in opinion polls

ROME

As Silvio Berlusconi and his political allies rise in opinion polls a month before Italy’s national elections, the media mogul is reportedly mulling a stunt to boost his political popularity — place his Mediaset TV empire in a blind trust.

Newsweekly Il Mondo has reported that Berlusconi has entrusted an unnamed advisor — with links to the Rothschild Group in New York — to draft a plan to place the 40% Mediaset stake that he and his five children own via their Fininvest holding company into a separate entity, to be managed by an autonomous board.

Separating himself from Mediaset would remove the conflict of interest charges that have dogged Berlusconi since he went into politics 20 years ago, and may even make economic — rather than merely political — sense.

Berlusconi’s New York advisor is also reportedly seeking a U.S. partner to buy a minority stake in Mediaset to offset losses that Italo merchant bank Mediobanca is predicting will hit €35 million ($47 million) for fiscal 2012, Mediaset’s first ever red ink.

Mediaset was launched in 1993 when Berlusconi floated his TV empire, the same year he went into politics.

Mediaset has not commented on the Il Mondo report. But several analysts called it perfectly plausible, and said there is pressure for more separation between Berlusconi and Mediaset from within Mediaset itself.

Mediaset has been battered by a combination of plunging ad sales amid bleak consumer confidence, an erosion in ratings caused by new, smaller players in Italy’s digital terrestrial free TV arena, and losses from its Mediaset Premium pay TV operation, still not turning a profit nine years after startup.

Despite these negatives, Mediaset shares have gained more than 25% in the past month since Berlusconi announced he would run for his fourth term as prime minister in December.

Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party and its allies are trailing the center-left in polls some 27% to 38%, with Berlusconi gaining ground steadily in past weeks after spending more than 60 hours on TV talkshows, more airtime than any of his rivals.

While Berlusconi is not expected to win the elections, analysts say 20% of the vote would be a great result for Berlusconi and Mediaset.

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