Bull#$% fight for latenight in Spain

Heat in ratings battle has suddenly been turned up

MADRID — Spain boasts one of Europe’s most competitive TV markets. With no ad caps or license fees, four general entertainment webs — Telecinco, Antena 3, pubcaster RTVE’s flagship channel TVE and the FORTA regional network — slog it out for similar mainstream auds.

But the heat in the ratings battle has suddenly been turned up.

Since Jan. 12, Spain’s three best-known TV showmen have been fronting latenight chatshows every Wednesday.

In the second faceoff, Telecinco’s Xavier Sarda (“Cronicas Marcianas,” 34.4%) bested Antena 3’s social ironist Andreu Buenafuente (“Buenafuente,” 26.8%) and RTVE’s motormouth socialist El Gran Wyoming (“La azotea de Wyoming,” 13.9%). “Cronicas” mixes a shouting match between guests about celebs’ sexual bents, a striptease and, natch, porn film excerpts.

Again beginning Jan. 12, Telecinco’s top-rated family dramedy “Los Serrano” (33.9%) has faced off directly with Antena 3’s biggest draw, neighbors comedy “Aqui no hay quien viva” (30.9%).

The ratings scrimmage is not coincidental.

Spain’s commercial webs are haunted by the specter of Sogecable’s scrambled premium paybox Canal Plus morphing into a free-to-air terrestrial broadcaster.

Sogecable won’t make a move until Spain’s government reveals advertising ceilings at RTVE sometime this year.

“If Canal Plus unscrambles, it will probably be in the next two to three years, before Spain’s next general elections,” says Enrique Jimenez, an analyst at Ibersecurities.

A free-to-air Canal Plus would rob the commercial nets of market share, added to which new digital terrestrial television channels will launch in Spain within four to five years.

In first-half 2004, Telecinco and Antena 3 enjoyed the best and third-best cash flow margins of any major broadcaster in Western Europe: 43% and 31%.

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