In its last meeting before the summer break, the Commission decided to authorise Sky Italia to compete for one of five Italian frequencies for digital terrestrial television (see 'Background').
"Sky Italia would be able to bid in an auction for terrestrial television, on the condition that they use the frequencies for free-to-air television as opposed to pay television," a Commission spokesman told a daily news briefing.
The decision is expected to boost competition in the Italian television market, which is dominated by public broadcaster RAI and Bersluconi's Mediaset empire. Joaquin Almunia, the EU's competition commissioner, had already authorised the Italian branch of Murdoch's global media empire to enter the Italian market in April (EurActiv 02/06/10).
An amendment to a previous EU antitrust decision, taken in 2003, allowed Murdoch to establish a monopoly in the then nascent Italian pay TV market provided that services were limited to satellite until the end of 2011.
The 2003 decision, taken by then Italian Antitrust Commissioner Mario Monti, sought to break a de facto duopoly in the Italian television landscape, which was dominated by public broadcaster RAI and Berlusconi's privately-owned channels.
At Tuesday's Commission meeting, Almunia rallied enough support to give Sky Italia the green light. But the internal deliberation turned out to be stormier than initially anticipated, EurActiv has learned.
According to sources, Italian Commissioner Antonio Tajani expressed reservations about the decision and found backing from Maltese Commissioner John Dalli and Greek Commissioner Maria Damanaki.
However, allegations of divisions between the commissioners were rejected by the Commission. "To my knowledge, the decision was unanimous," said Pia Ahrenkilde, spokeswoman for the EU executive.
In the months preceding the Commission meeting, the Italian government ramped up its campaign, telling the EU executive that Italian TV operators were against the entry of Sky Italia into the terrestrial digital television market.
State-owned RAI and small broadcasters said they were opposed to such authorisation, arguing that the market was still not ripe enough. As the Commission meeting approached, the Italian government allegedly piled on the pressure, making itself heard directly via phone calls and letters.
Answering questions from the press referring to the pressure allegations, the Commission spokeswoman said she had no knowledge that this happened.
"I absolutely find no evidence of this," said Pia Ahrenkilde, spokeswoman for the EU executive. "The allegations [...] about last-minute high-level lobbying were not confirmed."
"Sending letters and receiving phone calls is the normal business of the Commission," she added.
Battle not over yet
Reacting to the Commission's decision, Tom Mockridge, CEO of Sky Italia, expressed his "complete satisfaction".
However, the Commission decision also comes with downsides for Sky Italia, since the company will not be allowed to offer pay terrestrial TV services until 2015, four years later than previously envisaged. Moreover, the Commission made clear that Sky can bid for only one frequency out of the five which are being made available.
The bid's success is also far from guaranteed, as it will be up to the public authorities to select the best offers.
In addition, the battle could also enter a second round after Mediaset said it was "totally disconcerted" by the Commission's decision and would file an appeal.
"This decision authorises a monopolist in satellite and pay television [...] to operate in the free-to-air market and gives the company free rein to acquire frequency assets that are already insufficient for existing operators," the company said.