U.S. Markets closed

Berlusconi Battles Billionaire to Build Netflix Rival

Alex Webb

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and French billionaire Vincent Bollore are locking horns again in a battle to lead the southern European charge against Netflix Inc. 

Bollore, who controls media conglomerate Vivendi SA, lost the first round against Berlusconi in 2017. He’s well positioned to do better in the second. Think of it as a European version of HBO’s hit show “Succession,” where a rival takes on an aging but still powerful media baron. 

The two tycoons are sparring over the future of Mediaset SpA, the Italian broadcaster that Berlusconi founded and controls. The Milan-based company plans to merge with Spanish affiliate Mediaset Espana Comunicacion SA and redomicile in the Netherlands. The move will consolidate the control that Berlusconi, 82, and his family, through investment vehicle Fininvest, have by giving them extra voting rights in the new company, which will be called MediaForEurope.

It’s a prospect that Bollore, 67, must be loath to countenance. Vivendi owns 29% of Mediaset and plans to oppose the deal in a shareholder vote Sept. 4 since it will further diminish its influence, Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday. While Berlusconi needs a two-thirds majority to approve the merger, Vivendi may only be able to exercise 9.6% of the voting rights because most of its shares sit in an independent trust as a result of a 2017 reprimand from the Italian regulator -- Bollore’s initial defeat by Berlusconi. 

Luckily Vivendi has another lever it might exercise. The deal will fall through if shareholders owning more than 180 million euros of stock exercise a withdrawal right, whereby Mediaset has to pay investors opposing the merger a set price for their shares. Even if Vivendi were only to exercise the rights on its 9.6% direct stake, that would top 300 million euros, potentially scuppering Berlusconi’s plans.

It might just give Bollore the leverage he needs to realize a long-held goal: creating a southern European content champion that can better compete with Netflix. Doing so would likely mean selling the stake at a loss, but the threat could  force Berlusconi back to the negotiating table to forge some sort of alliance to pool Vivendi and Mediaset content. After all, the merger of the two Mediasets in Italy and Spain has a similar intention, to create a new video content giant.

That’s how Bollore ended up with a stake in Mediaset to begin with. Back in 2016, he pulled out of a deal to buy Berlusconi’s Mediaset Premium (the pay TV arm that has since been sold to Comcast Inc.’s Sky unit) for some 800 million euros, instead buying up shares in the parent firm. Since Vivendi is also the biggest shareholder in Telecom Italia SpA, Italy’s communications regulator made the French firm forfeit most of its Mediaset voting rights, saying that the dual stakes breached rules concerning concentration of media and telecoms ownership.

Bollore has been left with stakes in two Italian companies worth a combined 3.2 billion euros, but over which he has little influence. He also suffered a galling defeat at the hands of activist Elliott Management Corp. for control of Telecom Italia last year. He now has an opportunity to salvage some of the plans that first got him into this mess.

To contact the author of this story: Alex Webb at awebb25@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephanie Baker at stebaker@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinion

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.