SBI makes a move on Fuji

Softbank becomes net's largest shareholder

TOKYO — A new player has joined the ongoing battle for Japan’s largest net, Fuji Television Network, and radio broadcaster sister company the Nippon Broadcasting System.

Late Thursday, Softbank Investment (SBI) announced that it has become Fuji TV’s largest shareholder, with a 13.88% stake — a move made possible by borrowing 353,704 Fuji TV shares held by NBS for five years. NBS, which was until that day Fuji TV’s major shareholder with 22.5%, has now lost all voting rights in the network.

Deal was clearly intended to foil the high-profile and hostile takeover of NBS by the Internet firm Livedoor and its prexy Takafumi Horie by shutting the door of cross-shareholding between NBS and Fuji TV and thus preventing any indirect influence over the network.

Swaying Fuji TV’s management has been the stated aim of Horie, and to this end, Livedoor had acquired 50.21% of NBS shares by the end of last week, against futile legal and other attempts by NBS and Fuji TV to block Livedoor’s advance. It may now turn out to be an empty victory for Horie.

SBI is part of the Internet and financing giant Softbank Corp. under prexy Masayoshi Son. Son said recently for the first time that he is “interested in a partnership between Internet and TV. I will look into (the possibility of the tie-up with Fuji TV) if there is merit and such momentum gathers steam.”

For Son, interest in television is nothing new. Nine years ago, he failed in a joint takeover bid with Rupert Murdoch of TV Asahi.

Now that Fuji TV was desperate to impede Livedoor at almost any cost, Son chose the right moment to get into the act as savior.

Horie did not yet react officially to the new turn of events. Given the difference in financial power between Livedoor and Softbank, the SBI-Fuji TV combination may well be hard to beat. Discussions between the management of Livedoor and Fuji TV continue, but there’s been a decided power shift.

Livedoor had consolidated sales of 30.87 billion yen ($294 million) in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, while Softbank Corp.’s reached $4.9 billion, more than Fuji TV’s $4.34 billion, for both companies in the year ended March 31, 2004.