Is Rupert Murdoch's satellite-TV empire soon to reach into Russia?

News Corporation is said to be in talks with Russian television network NTV about buying satellite business NTV Plus, which claims around 200,000 subscribers and is valued at about $250 million (€217.8m; £149.6m).

The network is reportedly considering the disposal as part of a wider restructuring by parent Gazprom, a state-owned gas company. As well as the NTV business, Gazprom's media interests include smaller channel THT, a 66% holding in radio group Ekho Moskvy and a controlling stake in publisher Sem Dnei.

One of Russia's three major TV networks, NTV was launched in 1993 by media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky. However, Gazprom seized control two years ago and Gusinsky was forced to flee the country [WAMN: 17-Apr-01]. Many observers thought the state-backed takeover of NTV came in response to persistent criticism of the government on the network's programmes. Such fault-finding is now largely absent from its shows.

With NTV muzzled, all three of Russia's main networks –Channel One and Rossiya being the other two – are under some sort of government control, and ratings for the trio have suffered.

It is thought Gazprom regards Murdoch as comfortable working in a state-dominated TV market, after the media mogul's many years of wooing Chinese authorities.

"Murdoch's got no problem doing business with the state," declared one insider at the gas group's media arm. "He can toe the party line like he did in China. He is loyal, and he gets the business, because he's looking down the road 5 or 10 years."

However, no deal is likely ahead of the presidential election in March. And some doubt that president Vladimir Putin, having battled to clamp down on the press, would be willing to loosen his grip. "Putin for three years tried to establish complete control over all the channels," commented Igor Malashenko, a colleague of Gusinsky. "He succeeded, and he's not going to lose it now."

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff