Saudi prince sells stake in Mediaset

B'caster shows operating profit up 6.2% to $240 mil

MILIAN — Saudi Prince al Waleed ben Talal, one of the world’s richest men and a major investor in the U.S. and Europe, has ended his relationship with Italo Prime Minister and medial mogul Silvio Berlusconi’s TV group Mediaset.

The Saudi prince has sold his 2.28% stake in Italy’s leading broadcaster after eight years, Milan Stock Market authorities announced Tuesday.

Al Waleed transferred his shares to U.S. merchant bank Lehman Brothers in 1999 but kept the voting rights, which he sold to Lehman on April 17.

The news coincided with Mediaset’s first-quarter figures showing operating profit up 6.2% to $240 million, in line with analysts expectations and helped by the better results of its Spanish unit Telecinco.

Group revenues rose 23% to $896 million, thanks to stable advertising sales in Italy at $797 million and an increase of 28.2% to $161 million at Telecinco.

Mediaset said it had reduced costs by 2.2% and upped ratings at its three channels, beating its only rival, pubcaster RAI, for the first time.

Combined market share in primetime rose by 2.3% to 46.2% — RAI’s three channels had a combined share of 43.9%.

Analysts say Mediaset is better positioned than other European broadcasters, including Germany’s ProSieben and France’s TF1, and despite the recent decrease of global advertising spending during the war on Iraq.

Berlusconi’s political opponents said this proves once again that conflict of interests of the media-tycoon-turned-premier is benefiting his business.

“Berlusconi’s claim that his activity as Italy’s head of the government is damaging his company is unreliable,” said Giorgio Merlo, a member of the Margherita Party. “On the contrary, the conflict of interests in the last two years has distorted the competition with RAI, clearly advantaging Mediaset,” he said.

Berlusconi’s government wields indirect control and influence on RAI, as the major posts are political appointees.

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