The game of chess to win the European streaming war – VideoAge International

The story begins in 2016, when Vincent Bolloré decided he wanted his French company, Vivendi, to save Italian company Mediaset Premium from Silvio Berlusconi, a pay-TV service that was in dire financial straits.

Among other companies, Vivendi owns Canal Plus, a European pioneer of satellite TV and pay TV services, and in 2016 Bolloré planned to return to the Italian TV market – he had previously owned the satellite TV service. Italian Tele Piú in 1996 (before it was sold to 21st Century Fox and was renamed Sky Italia) – making it a shareholder of Mediaset’s Premium, which was Sky’s biggest competitor in Italy.

Back then, as now, the goal of many large media groups in Europe was to forge alliances in order to build a large pan-European content platform so that it could compete with international streaming players such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney Plus, among others.

In 2018, however, Vivendi suddenly reneged on the deal with Premium (which at the time was a state-owned company, but controlled by Mediaset) causing the service to shut down de facto. The operation of Premium was transferred to Sky, while the brand remained with Mediaset.

At that time, Bolloré’s expansionist aims in Italy emerged in another way. Leaving Premium to its fate, he turned directly to Mediaset, with the ambition of becoming its majority shareholder. In a few months, its Vivendi bought floating shares of Mediaset on the Borsa di Milano stock exchange, soon reaching 29.9% of the capital, putting the controlling shareholder, Fininvest de Silvio Berlusconi, in serious difficulty.

After the initial shock, Fininvest reacted fiercely, taking legal action to prevent Vivendi from buying more shares and strengthening its relative majority in Mediaset by achieving control of just under 50% (in part thanks to the placement of the shares in the hands of friendly shareholders since Mediaset could not directly buy this sum without activating an expensive share buyback offer).

At the same time, Vivendi became the largest shareholder in Italy’s main national telecommunications company, TIM-Telecom Italia (with a 23 percent stake). Alarmed, the other Italian shareholders of the telecommunications company formed an alliance with the American company Elliott Management and obtained loans from the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (a financial institution 83% owned by the Italian state) to increase its stake . These actions froze control of Vivendi and removed the French from a managerial position. And, with the aim of further diluting Vivendi’s influence, TIM’s Italian shareholders negotiated a merger (to create a unique Italian telecommunications network) with Open Fiber, a company owned equally by Cassa Depositi e Prestiti and ENEL, the state energy group.

Vivendi’s strong presence in Italy has become a major concern of Italian politicians who have questioned whether it makes sense to entrust Bolloré with the main assets of Italian communication, such as television networks and a telco. The answer, of course, was ‘no’, and under a 2004 law (known as the Gasparri law, named after Maurizio Gasparri, Minister of Communications under the Berlusconi government), the Italian Communications Authority (AGCOM) s ‘is involved. withdraw Vivendi from its dominant positions.

With the AGCOM decision, Vivendi was forced to entrust a large part of its shares in Mediaset to a blind trust (Simon Fiduciaria), thus preventing it from influencing the important decisions of the company.

With this decision, we come into the second half of 2020 in the midst of a pandemic, when the European Union declared that the provision of the Gasparri Act (under which AGCOM acted) was “inadequate”, going on to say that telephone and television companies were consolidating in other EU countries and Italy should not be treated as a separate case.

With the repeal of the Gasparri law by the EU and the annulment of AGCOM’s decision in the Vivendi-Mediaset case (decision also overturned by a court in the Lazio region), blind trust Simon Fiduciaria has was able to vacate the premises, and Vivendi regained control of all 29.9 percent of Mediaset’s shares.

But as happens very often in Italy, what comes out the front door can come back through the side window, and thus, a government decree to tackle the COVID-19 emergency had an additional amendment (dubbed the amendment ” save Mediaset ”), which established that AGCOM could still reaffirm its initial disposition on the Vivendi-Mediaset affair.

And so, we now come to the present day, with the EU challenging the “save Mediaset” provision (although it is still in force), while the Berlusconi companies continue their civil and criminal proceedings against Vivendi, claiming that the group French did not respect the law, first with Premium and later with Mediaset.

It is clear that in the end, the real fight is for who will become the great European streaming player, and Mediaset has been working for some time on the creation of Media For Europe (MFE), a pan-European television group to which Bolloré is opposed. . , and which would initially bring together television networks in Italy, Spain and Germany.

For this project, and through a series of acquisitions of shares on the open market, Mediaset became the majority shareholder of the German television group ProsiebenSat1, although it is still excluded from its management. Then there is the primary ownership (but not the control) of the Spanish television network Telecinco. In Spain, Vivendi managed to legally stop the takeover of Telecinco by Mediaset (even though Bolloré has no stake in Telecinco), blocking or at least rejecting the creation of MFE by Mediaset.

Conversely, Mediaset’s strategy worries Vi-vendi. It is a clash between two strong personalities – Berlusconi and Bolloré – who do not want to cede control of such an important commercial initiative in the European media market. They are still playing chess and the outcome is still unpredictable. Meanwhile, Mediaset has already decided where MFE will be based, choosing Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for tax opportunities.

(By Enzo Chiarullo and Mauro Roffi)

Audio version (a DV works service)

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