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Viacom Expands With Spike TV and Super! as Part of New Push in Italy (EXCLUSIVE)

Viacom aims to become Italy's fifth-biggest TV player

ROME – Viacom is expanding its footprint in Italy’s free-to-air TV market as part of a broader plan to build scale and become a major Italian TV player.

Viacom International Media Networks has acquired Italian free-to-air channel LCN 49 from Scripps Network, on which it plans to launch an Italian version of the Spike TV network. Viacom has also formed a joint venture with Italian publisher De Agostini, through which it has taken a 50% stake in terrestrial kids’ channel Super! The new ventures come on top of the two free-to-air channels Viacom already owns in Italy: Paramount Channel and VH1.

The company announced the deals Thursday amid a turnaround effort to counter declining ad revenue in the U.S. Italy is Europe’s third-largest market for ad sales, which have shown stable growth in recent years. Unlike in other European markets such as France, foreign companies are legally able to purchase Italian free-to-air channel space.

Viacom already has a portfolio of 11 channels on pay-TV platform Sky Italia, including MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. They are now trying to build up operations in the free-to-air space with the stated goal of becoming Italy’s fifth-largest media company in terms of combined free and pay-TV ratings.

“Our pay-TV partnerships remain the priority for Viacom,” David Lynn, CEO of Viacom International Media Networks, said in a statement. “But free-to-air distribution is helping us grow ratings and revenues in TV markets, like Italy, where free-to-air networks are predominant.”

Even though Viacom’s Spike channel is being re-branded Paramount Channel in the U.S., “in Italy we saw an opportunity to use the Spike brand,” Raffaele Annecchino, who heads Viacom in Southern and Western Europe, Middle East and Africa, said in an interview with Variety.

“It’s growing fast in other European markets, including the Netherlands and the U.K., and we’re excited by its potential in Italy,” he added. Spike also rolled out in Russia in March.

Spike TV will launch in Italy on Oct. 22, and will target the channel’s customary male audience, though not exclusively. Content will include a mix of factual shows such as reality show “Ink Master” (pictured), docu-reality series “Bar Rescue,” home improvement show “Catch a Contractor,” action movies, and product purchased from Scripps as part of a content deal built into Viacom’s acquisition of the LCN 49 channel.

Viacom had already been selling a large portion of its Nickelodeon product to De Agostini for kids’ channel Super! Joint management and buying a 50% stake in the channel takes the relationship a step further.

Annecchino said that the company has developed a two-pronged strategy in Italy. “We have a leading position in the pay-TV market with Sky on which we distribute 11 channels, and now this is a nice evolution of our free-to-air business, where we will either operate or represent a total of nine channels,” he said.

Viacom’s audience penetration in Italy now “covers kids, millennials, adults and music lovers in both pay and free [TV],” Annecchino said, adding: “Our goal is to become the fifth largest media company in Italy within a year thanks to our increased scale.”

Viacom has also expanded its local advertising sales operation, signing deals to represent Scripps Networks’ Food Network and Sony’s kiddie station Pop, as well as its own channels.

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