Italy’s Telecom Italia Media has entered into exclusive talks to sell its La7 TV channel to Urbano Cairo, a former exec in Silvio Berlusconi’s Publitalia TV advertising unit, in a move likely to shake up the stagnant TV landscape.

Cairo, who was Berlusconi’s right-hand-man in the 1980s before setting up his Cairo Communications in the mid-90s, has emerged as the frontrunner in a heated race for La7.

Telecom Italia’s board turned down a rival offer from private Italo equity fund Clessidra late Monday, and rejected an 11th-hour expression of interest from fashion mogul Diego Della Valle.

Cairo now has two weeks to close the deal for La7, Italy’s third generalist terrestrial TV player. Financial details are under tight wraps.

Negotiations do not involve Telecom Italia Media’s 51% stake in MTV Italia, a terrestrial and satellite channel, being sold separately.

Cairo’s probable purchase of La7 made headlines in Italy on Tuesday (Feb. 19) with leftist media questioning whether Cairo’s onetime closeness to Berlusconi can guarantee the independence of its news unit, which is a ratings booster precisely because it does not cater to the Berlusconi camp.

News of the talks comes days before Italy’s national election on Feb. 24 and 25, in which Berlusconi is running.

“Politics have nothing to do with it,” said Franco-Tunisian entrepreneur Tarak Ben Ammar, a Telecom Italia board member. “We just did what’s best for the company.”

Cairo, who already sells ads for La7, said he had no intention of changing its news team, and noted he was “fired by Berlusconi in 1995, and have had him as an adversary ever since.”

Despite its relatively low 4% average audience share, La7 is considered the potential cornerstone of a so-called “third TV pole” that could grow into a fresh alternative for viewers to pubcaster RAI and Mediaset, which have dominated the market for decades.