License crunch for Russia’s Center-TV

Lesin says license to be auctioned next month

MOSCOW — The future of Russia’s Center-TV looks uncertain, despite ongoing talks between Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, who founded and finances the station, and Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin, who has notified the broadcaster that its license will be put up for auction May 24.

Lesin announced the decision — which also affects Channel 1 ORT (Public Russian Television, which is 51% state-owned) — in February, after both channels were warned about partisan political coverage during the run-up to Russia’s Dec. 19 parliamentary elections. Center-TV also faces another technical complaint from the press ministry.

Center-TV was originally set up to provide coverage for Luzhkov and his allies prior to Luzhkov’s bid for the Russian presidency. Center-TV also upset the local TV industry by its readiness to pay considerably higher prices for top foreign product than other players were accustomed to.

Appeals racing deadline

With the first court hearings on Center-TV’s appeals set for early May, it’s unlikely that a final decision will be reached before the channel’s license expires May 20. Without the press ministry’s warnings, Center-TV’s license would have been eligible for automatic extension.

With top management departures from Center-TV rumored on Moscow’s grapevine, there’s also speculation on which other players may enter the licensing competition. The prime contender is said to be local network Ren-TV, which currently broadcasts on decimeter frequencies and would profit from a takeover of Center-TV’s superior transmission system.

Ren-TV’s prospective bid, which would have to be filed by May 8, is believed to be financed by national petroleum giant Lukoil, which is reported to be considering an investment as high as $50 million in upgrading the channel.

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