SERIOUS SUITORS COURTING SILVIO

Here’s the good news for Silvio: The much-beleaguered Italian TV tycoon can count on at least two serious suitors who want to buy his TV holdings.

Both News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and Saudi prince Al Walid ben Talal have in the last few days unveiled plans to purchase all or part of Berlusconi’s TV and advertising business, each having flown to Rome to meet with Italy’s former prime minister and discuss terms.

The Australian-born magnate, whose own media empire stretches across four continents, says he is “seriously” ready to purchase up to 100% of Mediaset, the unit that groups Fininvest’s TV, film and ad sales holdings, for an amount “not too far” from the $2.8 billion indicated by press reports.

The Saudi prince, who already owns 30% of the Rome-based satcaster Arab Radio Television and 24% of Euro Disney, said he is interested in taking a substantial minority stake in Mediaset, about 30%-40%.

Both Murdoch and Al Walid are among the international investors with whom Fininvest execs say they have been talking. Among other potential investors mentioned are Germany’s Kirch Group, which has separately indicated an interest, and Time Warner, which adamantly denies any interest.

Here’s the bad news for Silvio: The upcoming June 11 referendum, if passed, could force Berlusconi to offload two of his three webs anyway, thus significantly lowering the price he could ask potential buyers for his webs.

Pass the aspirin

Beyond that possibility, Berlusconi has other headaches to contend with. His political popularity is in rapid decline, both among his former political allies and among the public. This waning popularity should make it harder for him to relaunch his bid to run Italy’s government again – his main reason for wanting to sell off his media holdings in the first place.

Further complicating his political plans is the fact that allegations of involvement in kickbacks now under investigation in Italy have become more insistent and more convincing with the passage of each week – and with the arrest of more and more Fininvest execs.

Just 10 days ago, the chairman of Berlusconi’s TV ad sales unit Publitalia, Marcello Dell’Utri, and other colleagues were arrested in a probe into fraudulent accounting practices at the company. A personal friend and one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Berlusconi’s decision to enter politics, Dell’Utri is the most powerful Fininvest exec after Berlusconi and Fininvest president and CEO Fedele Confalonieri. Dell’Utri is still in jail.

Making matters worse, magistrates have, in an unprecedented move, asked the courts to place Publitalia under judicial administration because they suspect the ad sales company, the largest in Italy, is involved in a large number of financial misdeeds. A decision will be made by the courts July 7.

In a separate development, Berlusconi is himself under investigation on corruption charges. After he did not turn up for questioning by Milan magistrates twice in the last month, he must now face magistrates July 4 to decide whether he should be prosecuted over alleged illegal payoffs to tax collectors when they inspected Fininvest’s books.

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