MILAN Vivendi (VIV.PA) denied on Saturday it was planning to take over Mediaset (MS.MI) after buying a fifth of the Italian broadcaster in a move that has riled the government and stoked an ongoing row between the companies over a pay-TV deal.
Vivendi, led by French billionaire and corporate raider Vincent Bollore, became Mediaset's No. 2 shareholder behind Fininvest - the holding company of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi - when it reached an initial goal of building a 20 percent stake this week.
The Italian government cautioned Vivendi against mounting a hostile takeover bid for Mediaset, Italy's largest private broadcaster and one of the country's biggest employers.
Officials are concerned that Bollore, who controls Telecom Italia (TLIT.MI) and is a key shareholder in Mediobanca (MDBI.MI), could end up wielding even bigger influence over Italy's corporate landscape.
The country's communications watchdog warned Vivendi this week that any bid to concentrate control of Mediaset and Telecom Italia could be illegal.
But in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera on Saturday, Vivendi CEO Arnaud de Puyfontaine said the move was not hostile but rather part of Bollore's broader plans to build a European company with global reach.
"We have a long-term interest, we want to be an industrial partner (of Mediaset)," he said.
He denied Vivendi was seeking to take over Mediaset, saying if that had been the case it would have launched a takeover bid.
"We have the means to do so," he told the newspaper, adding that the French company had spent about 800 million euros ($836 million) to build the 20 percent stake.
However, he declined to say whether Vivendi might launch a bid at a later date. "I cannot comment," he said.
DINNER AT MCDONALD'S
Fininvest, which holds 39.8 percent of Mediaset's voting rights, quickly called Vivendi's move hostile, concerned it resembled tactics previously used by Bollore to win sway over companies including Telecom Italia and Ubisoft Entertainment.
The Berlusconi holding lodged a criminal complaint of market manipulation against the French company and said it would continue to raise its own stake.
Media reports said it was also considering asking courts to seize Vivendi's stake on grounds the French group's behaviour in recent months depressed shares allowing it to buy in cheaply.
Vivendi and Mediaset have been at loggerheads since July when the French group backtracked on a previous deal to buy the Italian broadcaster's pay-TV unit Premium and exchange a 3.5 percent holding in each company.
The Vivendi CEO said the deal for Premium fell through when the French company realised the agreement was different to what it had first thought.
"It's as if they had invited us to dinner at a three-star restaurant and then we found ourselves at McDonald's," he said.
"Having 20 percent (of Mediaset) ... gives us a say in finding a good solution on Premium," De Puyfontaine said.
He confirmed a meeting with Italian industry minister Carlo Calenda on Friday and said he had explained the group's strategy. A source told Reuters Calenda said the government was unhappy with Vivendi's hostile stake-building.
SOUTHERN EUROPEAN POWERHOUSE
Bollore has made no secret of his intentions to create a southern European powerhouse able to compete with the likes of Time Warner (TWX.N) and Rupert Murdoch.
Sources said on Friday Vivendi was bidding for a stake in Spain's largest sports broadcasting rights firm as it shops around for ever more content.
Rupert Murdoch's recent bid for Britain's Sky (SKYB.L) has focused the minds of European media players, underlining the need to attain scale to compete with online platforms like Netflix (NFLX.O) and Amazon (AMZN.O).
The market is also speculating on Bollore's intentions in Italy, drawing parallels between Mediaset and Vivendi's aggressive stake-building in Telecom Italia last year.
Vivendi now has a 24 percent stake in Telecom Italia and also has partnerships with Orange (ORAN.PA) and Iliad (ILD.PA).
There was speculation that Vivendi had sought to take advantage of political uncertainty in Italy and France to make its move, with a new government in force in Rome and elections looming in France.
"It's totally false, I told minister Calenda that much," De Puyfontaine said, adding that he had also met with Mediaset CEO Pier Silvio Berlusconi on Friday.
"The project (with Mediaset) is solid and convincing enough to overcome the hurdles and make it work," he said.
However, in a statement on Saturday Mediaset said there were no talks with Vivendi and that during the meeting with De Puyfontaine the broadcaster had simply reiterated its position that it intended to safeguard the interests of the company and all shareholders.
A Mediaset board meeting is set for Tuesday.
($1 = 0.9574 euros)
(Reporting by Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Jason Neely and Helen Popper)