by Eric J. Lyman
ROME, Sept. 17 (Xinhua) - It is probable that no single economic sector in Italy feels the trials and tribulations of billionaire tycoon and three-time Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as much as the country's television sector.
Berlusconi transformed the sector in 1980, when TeleMilano, the television network he founded, started broadcasting nationally, making it the first national competitor to state-run RAI.
Now called Mediaset, the company owns three national free-to-air channels; a pay-TV subsidiary called Mediaset Premium; Telecinco, a Spanish broadcaster; reality television producer Endemol; and the Medusa cinema production and distribution house. By most measures it is the biggest broadcaster in the country.
The company is also the cornerstone of Berlusconi's political career: giving him an automatic forum to voice his views and address a wide audience in a way that would be impossible for other candidates.
And Mediaset itself benefitted from the patronage of its largest shareholder. Recently, Mediaset's share price has often moved in step with Berlusconi's political fortunes.
Those fortunes may change dramatically after Italy's parliament votes on whether to strip Berlusconi of his Senate seat in the wake of the Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court conviction on tax fraud and false accounting.
Regardless of the outcome of that vote, it is clear Berlusconi's woes are mounting. The Supreme Court ruling was the first definitive conviction against him in more than two-dozen legal cases, and he has two other cases on appeal: one for conducting illegal wire taps and the second for abuse of power and paying an underage girl for sex.
And on Tuesday, Berlusconi's Fininvest -- the holding company that controls Mediaset and other Berlusconi family assets -- was fined 540 million euros (721 million U.S. dollars) in damages related to the disputed acquisition of a leading publisher more than 20 years ago.
As Berlusconi's troubles mount, experts are starting to ask: how will Berlusconi's exit -- whether slow or fast -- impact the television sector he helped transform?
"Some impacts are easy to predict," said Renzo Rossi, a communications expert with the University of Modena in Emilia Romagna. "Mediaset will have to do without Berlusconi's help, and the other broadcasters will benefit from a weakened rival. But many impacts will be impossible to predict."
According to Bernstein Research, one possibility is a unlikely entrant into the pay-TV market, the fastest growing part of the television sector, which is currently dominated by Sky-Italia, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox.
In a research note released Tuesday, Bernstein predicted: "Berlusconi's political influence will wane .. [which] will open up the possibility of a restructuring of Italian pay-TV." The company speculated that could happen through the entry of Telecom Italia into the market, either on its own or through a merger with Murdoch's Sky-Italia. Either possibility would be a dramatic change from the status quo, but the speculation only reflects the magnitude of change the sector could see after Berlusconi.