United Group, a leading multi-play telecoms and media provider in South-East Europe, has bought a large chunk of the Bulgarian media, as its latest acquisition was cleared by the country’s anti-cartel body on Monday (18 January).
The media group Nova Broadcasting Group passed from the hands of the Domuschievi brothers to United Group, which had already bought the telecommunications operator Vivacom last July.
The deal, approved by the Commission for Protection of Competition on Monday, is seen by media analysts as a chance to improve the declining media environment in Bulgaria, which was ranked 111th in the Media Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders.
This hope is also based on the fact that the deal includes the newspapers under the control of Delyan Peevski, a shady tycoon and MP from the Movement of Rights and Freedoms (DPS), a political force representing ethnic Turks in Bulgaria.
Peevski’s newspapers have paid lip service to Boyko Borissov’s government and have often been used as a weapon against critics.
Under the leadership of the Domuschievi brothers, Nova TV, the biggest player in Nova Broadcasting Group, has lost many of its best journalists, some being fired, other leaving on their own will, disappointed by the deteriorating media standards.
According to unofficial data, United Group has invested $2 billion (€1.65 billion) in Bulgaria, which includes the acquisition and technological investments in Vivacom, as well as the Domuschievs’ media group.
Nova Broadcasting Group includes 10 TV channels, including Nova TV, 4 radio stations, the online platform Net Info, which includes ABV email platform, the video-sharing site Vbox7, as well as the websites Vesti.bg, Dariknews.bg, Sinoptik.bg , Edna.bg, Gong.bg and others.
United Group began operations in 2000 as a small cable company in Serbia.
Over the next 12 years, its business grew by acquiring other operators and telecommunications assets. In March 2019, it was bought by the British company BC Partners, with the US company KKR as the other shareholder. The first big deal after that was the purchase of the Greek telecom Forthnet S.A.
Overall, Western investors have not been successful in the Bulgarian media market so far.
Twenty years ago, large foreign investors entered the Bulgarian market, such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for television, and later the German group VAZ for the print media. At that time, their presence diversified the media environment in Bulgaria and raised the standards of mainstream publications.
However, both Western groups eventually left Bulgaria and their media were taken over by local oligarchs. This marked the start of the decline of the Bulgarian media, which became hostages of national political brinkmanship and of the business interests of their owners.
Another recent big deal on the Bulgarian media market is the acquisition of bTV, the TV channel with the biggest audience, by the PPF investment group owned by Czech billionaire Petr Kellner.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re ready to go as far as we have to in order to deliver the best to our customers. We’re investing not only in the infrastructure and platforms that empower them, but also in unique local content to entertain them and help them stay informed,” United Group CEO Victoriya Boklag told EURACTIV.
She added that the group promises to bring the Bulgarian public the very best of what the industry has to offer worldwide.
“If you look at our company’s history you see we have a strong track record both in technological innovation and in the content we provide. So, whether you consider our cutting-edge EON TV platform, our award-winning independent news channel N1, or that we produce the most popular television programmes in the region, it’s clear we’re setting the bar for the industry. This is what we’re bringing to Bulgaria.”