Italian P.M. ousted, but he remains media king

Rivals haven't garnered enough power to check Berlusconi's Mediaset

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[rome] With the dust not yet settled after the contentious election battle that ousted Italy's flamboyant Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi by the slimmest of margins, Mr. Berlusconi's massive Mediaset empire appears to be emerging as one of the bruising campaign's few winners.

During his five years in office, Mr. Berlusconi thwarted all attempts to pass conflict-of-interest laws to limit his media influence. His empire grew and thrived on state advertising and favorable media legislation, but many thought he would get his comeuppance when his rivals took power.

Now that's looking less likely. Mediaset is expected to benefit from the fact that incoming Prime Minister Romano Prodi's thin margin of victory will deprive him of the majority he needs to pass legislation that could weaken Mediaset.

"Many predicted doom for Mediaset if Prodi won, but the current circumstances are practically a best-case scenario given that Berlusconi was defeated," said Javier Noriega, chief economist for investment bankers Hildebrandt and Ferrar.

There's no doubt that Mediaset is better positioned now than it was in 2001, before Mr. Berlusconi took power. Mediaset's profit rose every year Mr. Berlusconi was in power, reaching $736.2 million. The company controls 66% of Italy's TV-ad revenue, up from 51% in 2001.

But not all the news is good for Mr. Berlusconi. Mr. Prodi has vowed to pass legislation that would cap government ad spending on any single media source, and perhaps a law that caps Mediaset's market share among advertisers. He may try to require Mediaset and state broadcaster RAI to divest one national TV network each.

"Obviously, Prodi is no fan of Mediaset," Mr. d'Aquilla said. "The question is whether or not he will have the political power to make any meaningful changes."
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