Gallic Giant Vivendi’s Purchase of Top Telecom Italia Stake May Impact Netflix European Expansion

ROME — Wednesday’s move by Vivendi to become the majority shareholder in Italian telco Telecom Italia with a 15% stake is sparking speculation that the Paris-based media and content conglom is embarking on an expansionist course, converging telcos and content in a first step toward becoming a pan-European pay-TV powerhouse and the only player able to outgun Netflix as it rolls out in continental Europe.

In a statement Vivendi, which comprises pan-European production and distribution mini-major Studiocanal, Gallic pay TV operator Canal Plus, and Universal Music, said it had spent more than $1 billion raising its initial 1.9% stake in Telecom Italia, which is Italy’s top landline, mobile phone and broadband operator, to 6.7%.

That is on top of the 8.2% chunk of Telecom Italia Vivendi had received from Spain’s Telefonica as part of an agreement to sell the Spanish telco its Brazilian unit GVT last year. That deal also gave Vivendi content access to Telefonica’s pay TV pipeline in Spain, including Canal Plus Espana, Spain’s biggest pay TV platform.

Studiocanal owns what is considered the third-largest film library in the world.

In early June Netflix announced plans to roll out in Italy, Spain and Portugal in October after debuting in fall 2014 in Germany, France, Luxembourg, Austria and Switzerland.

On Thursday Vivendi chief exec Arnaud de Puyfontaine did not rule out Vivendi increasing its Telecom Italia stake going forward.

In Italy Telecom Italia already has a broadband distribution deal with the Murdoch family’s Sky paybox and a similar deal with Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset Premium Italo pay-TV service is deemed imminent.

More significantly, rumors are now swirling in Italy and across Europe that the next move by Vivendi, headed by Gallic billionaire Vincent Bolloré, will be to buy up Murdoch’s pan-European Sky paybox, which operates in the U.K., Ireland, Italy and Germany, and also snap up Mediaset Premium.

Reports of informal talks between Bollore and the Murdochs sent Sky shares skyrocketing earlier this month.

The Italian press has already dubbed Bollore “the new king of European media.”

Vivendi has no shortage of cash, having recently sold telecommunications assets in France, North Africa and Brazil as well as video-game maker Activision Blizzard pursuing Bolloré’s stated goal of refocusing Vivendi on media and content. Those sales have left it with a cash pile estimated at more than $7.5 billion.

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