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Italo pubcaster RAI and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s commercial broadcast group Mediaset are launching a free-to-air digital terrestrial platform to drive the switch from analog to digital TV and counter competition from Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Italia paybox.

Tivu is modeled on Freeview, Blighty’s multichannel DTT service, which overtook Murdoch’s British paybox BSkyB in terms of subscribers last year. Like Freeview, it will require a separate set-top box.

RAI and Mediaset will each have a 48% stake in Tivu, with Telecom Italia Media holding 4%. The platform will also be open to outside broadcasters.

Tivu still needs approval from Italy’s antitrust and communications authorities to become operative. It is expected to go on air early next year on DTT and on free satellite.

RAI and Mediaset, which run neck and neck in the ratings, account for more than 80% of Italy’s TV audience and TV advertising revenues.

Digital terrestrial has seen 30% growth in Italy during the first half of 2008, according to Milan media analyst Studio Frasi. There are digital decoders in 6.5 million out of Italy’s 22 million TV homes, prompting the government to consider moving the digital switchover from 2012 to 2010.

Since launching in 2003, Sky Italia has seen steady growth in its subscriber count, now at 4.5 million.

Italy’s key digital driver so far has been Mediaset’s DTT pay TV service Mediaset Premium, comprising three stations packed with Hollywood pics and series plus the Disney Channel.

Mediaset Premium launched in January, breaking Murdoch’s monopoly on Italo pay TV.