Italy's government may issue a special decree to protect a national TV channel owned by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Minister for implementation Claudio Scajola announced that the government may step in to allow the Rete 4 station to continue broadcasting on terrestrial TV, despite a court order that it switch to satellite by the year-end.

The suggestion -- which will raise new questions as to whether Berlusconi is using his prime ministerial powers to benefit his business empire -- follows the failure of media ownership legislation that would have preserved the station's current status. Despite passing through both houses of parliament, the law was dramatically blocked this week when the nation's president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi refused to sign it [WAMN: 17-Dec-03].

Ciampi's decision sends the legislation back to parliament, which is unlikely to consider it again until the new year -- after the deadline for Rete 4's switch to satellite.

Berlusconi dominates the Italian media landscape: as premier, he indirectly controls state broadcaster RAI; as business baron, he ultimately controls commercial TV giant Mediaset, parent of Rete 4 and two other national channels. In total, these interests account for 90% of the country's television market.

In light of the premier's stranglehold on Italian TV, the country's highest court ruled that Rete 4 had to be transferred to satellite by the end of 2003. Analysts estimate that this shift would cost Mediaset 10% to 15% of its annual operating profit.

The court also ruled that the state-owned RAI-3 channel must relinquish its claim to ad revenues -- another decision the media law would have overturned.

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff