Mediaset channels fined for advertising violations

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ROME -- Two television channels owned by Italy's Mediaset were fined more than $800,000 Friday by Italy's communications authority for what the regulator said were repeated violations of Italian advertising rules.

State broadcaster RAI -- Mediaset's chief rival -- has alleged such rule breaking for years. But this is the first significant government action aimed at punishing the rule breaking.

The main violation is against the rules that govern the frequency with which films shown on television can be interrupted for advertising. The broadcaster is charged with incorporating brief news and weather reports into film programming so that it can be classified as news programming -- a format allowed to carry more advertising.

A small part of the fine was for breaching rules related to children's programming: showing cartoons that use vulgar language and sexual situations and which run advertising using cartoon characters similar to those in the original program.

The fine totaled €625,000 ($820,000), split between Italia 1 and ReteQuattro -- both Mediaset-owned national channels.

The news comes during a tough period for the company, which is controlled by controversial media tycoon and two-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The company was recently ordered to switch one of its three national networks to newer digital technologies no later than 2009. Furthermore, advertising sales levels and profits have been slumping this year as the company starts the process to switching to a non-advertising based revenue model.

Additionally, Berlusconi has been charged in a Milan court with corruption and could be forced to appear before a judge as soon as Monday.

A Mediaset spokesman declined comment when contacted. In recent weeks, however, company officials have cast many of the company's recent difficulties on politically motivated attacks from Italian Premier Romano Prodi, who narrowly defeated Berlusconi in April's elections. Prodi strongly denies the charges, alleging instead that the company no longer benefits from the protection it enjoyed when Berlusconi headed the government.
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