Murdoch bids £2bn for Berlusconi channels

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The Independent Online
Rupert Murdoch's master company, News Corp, was yesterday preparing to spend up to $2.8bn (£1.8bn) for a controlling stake in three Italian television stations owned by Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial Italian media baron- turned-politician.

If he is successful, the world's most active collector of media assets will gain instant access to a fresh market, adding to his extensive stable of publishing and broadcasting interests.

Financing the deal would present few problems. On Wednesday, News Corp and MCI announced a $400m global joint venture to provide multimedia products to homes and offices. To secure the alliance, MCI, which is 20 per cent owned by British Telecom, is to pay up to $2bn for a 13.5 per cent stake in News Corp.

Mr Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy until his resignation last December, has been the target of a sustained campaign to strip him of his media holdings.

Next month, two referendums are scheduled to determine whether rules should be changed to prevent concentration of ownership. Analysts in Rome and London said yesterday that Mr Berlusconi may prefer to strike a deal with Mr Murdoch that would leave him with a significant stake but free to develop his political ambitions.

According to Mr Murdoch's lawyers, News Corp is offering to take a 51 per cent stake in the three channels. It is not known how profitable the business is, but all three channels are popular with Italian viewers. Programming is heavily dominated by games shows, American imports, and studio sets painted in garish, primary colours. Big-breasted women are a mainstay.

Mr Berlusconi and Mr Murdoch took similar routes towards television dominance in their respective markets. Fifteen years ago, Mr Berlusconi began to beam programming into Italy from Monte Carlo, in direct competition with the state-owned network. With the support of politicians, he has since added to his empire. Mr Murdoch used the Astra satellite and a Luxembourg base to develop Sky TV, now the leading pay-TV network in the UK.

Murdoch's Italian job, page 15