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EUROPE : Italy Referendum Targets Berlusconi, TV : Former premier fights four proposals to restructure system and restrict ownership of channels. Billionaire could suffer huge losses.

June 09, 1995|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ROME — Do touch that dial! That is the invitation to TV-watching Italian voters this weekend from reformers plotting to overhaul the most blatantly political and closely held national television system in Western Europe.

Ninety percent of Italy's 57 million viewers regularly watch one of six channels--three of them state-owned, the other three owned by former and would-be Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

A center-left alliance protesting that concentration of broadcast control has forced a national referendum Sunday that will chart the future of both the state and private systems. Eight other national questions also appear on a complex ballot, but four key questions examine the nation's airwaves.

One proposal would allow privatization of the state's Rai broadcasting network, which includes three channels that for decades have each been controlled by one of the dominant political parties: Rai 1, Christian Democrat; Rai 2, Socialist; Rai 3, Communist.

Now, officially, the parties are no longer in charge, and a board appointed last year under Berlusconi's government supervises the three channels, which together draw about 45% of viewers. But political overtones linger, and critics are asking voters to sponsor at least a partial Rai selloff to private investors.

The other three TV questions on the referendum target billionaire Berlusconi, who catapulted to power as a rookie politician but was forced to resign in December after seven tumultuous months in office.

The Berlusconi stations, Canale 5, Italia Uno and Retequattro, share 45% of the audience and divide about 85% of commercial advertising. They are pillars of Berlusconi's Fininvest empire, which also includes Publitalia 80, the country's largest advertising agency and the source of 60% of Italian television advertising revenue.

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One proposal that Berlusconi has denounced as a "post-Communist plot" would restrict a single individual to a single TV channel--forcing him to sell two. The three stations Berlusconi now holds account for nearly a third of Fininvest's $7-billion yearly revenue.

Another proposal would limit commercials during TV movies, and still another would restrict any agency to control of advertising for no more than two channels. Publitalia currently sells ads for all three of Fininvest's channels.

The longstanding dispute over television reached the ballot after arduous political negotiations failed to find a middle ground on which Berlusconi, as he had long promised, could voluntarily shed part of his holdings. Now tycoon Rupert Murdoch, Germany's Kirch Group, a Saudi prince and Time Warner are all reported by Italian newspapers to be at least window-shopping in Berlusconi's video arcade.

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Critics say Berlusconi's media holdings give him an unfair political advantage. He relishes power and is not shy about wielding it. Indeed, he has used the channels unabashedly to advance the cause of his Forza Italia party and, most recently, in his attempt to defeat the referendum.

"Vote No," he urges at every turn. If Berlusconi wins, it will strengthen his hold on the political center-right and his calls for early elections. If he loses, his fortune could suffer as badly as his prestige in an election-weary nation.

After a long string of regional, provincial and local elections, the referendum is a preface to the third national election in four years, expected in the fall. At least half of the registered voters must participate for Sunday's results to be valid, but some critics are questioning the validity of the referendum process itself. A favorite tool of pressure groups, who need muster only 500,000 signatures to effect a vote, referendums can overturn existing laws in Italy, but they cannot create new ones.

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Media Magnate

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's holdings include the following:

Television

Fininvest, which owns:

* Broadcast television channels Canale 5, Retequattro and Italia Uno. * 10% of the cable channels Telepiu 1, Telepiu 2 and Telepiu 3. * Publitalia 80, Grand Eventi and Promoservice--firms that sell TV advertising space for Berlusconi's three broadcast channels.

Film and Video

* Medusa, Cinema 5, Pentafilm and Pentavideo. Publishing

* Mondadori, one of Italy's largest publishing companies.

Other holdings: A.C. Milan, a professional soccer team; the Manzoni Theater in Milan; Standa, a supermarket chain, and five insurance companies.

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