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Axel Springer, the German publisher, is preparing for a political and legal battle to win approval for the takeover of ProSiebenSat1, the nation’s second biggest private broadcaster, which watchdogs want to block.
The company said it would make a final decision about its next move only after the federal Cartel Office declares its final position, which it must do by next Friday.
But Springer has used the time to prepare for the worst. Mathias Döpfner, Springer chief executive, and Haim Saban, ProSieben’s biggest investor, met this week to tweak a clause in the €4.2bn ($5.1bn) contract which would from Monday have cost Springer a penalty of €800,000 a day for the non-completion of the deal.
Springer said the talks had proved “constructive” enough to free it from “the burden of a ticking taxi meter.”
However, Mr Saban could still seek new buyers after March 5. At the same time, Springer’s recent willingness to make big concessions to get the blessing of the Cartel Office as well as behind-the-scenes contacts with politicians have for the first time fostered open political support for a scaled-down deal.
The government in Berlin can overturn the veto of the Cartel Office if it holds a transaction to be in the national interest. But Springer’s unwillingness to compromise with the authorities long made this option politically controversial.
The Cartel Office and the media watchdog of Germany’s state governments, the KEK, echoed popular sentiment when they pledged to veto the deal.
They said the combination of Springer’s tabloid, Bild, and four TV channels would allow the company to dominate the advertising market and public opinion.
After a veto by the KEK 10 days ago, Springer agreed to sell the popular Pro7 channel as the price for keeping the other three, a suggestion the Cartel Office made at the start of its review in autumn.
However, the Cartel Office insisted that Springer find a new buyer for the channel before taking over the rest of ProSieben, forcing the newspaper company to attempt to bundle together a bidding group at the last minute.
Springer withdrew this offer on Monday, accusing the Cartel Office of being “completely unwilling to compromise and not interested in solutions”.
Edmund Stoiber, the conservative governor of Bavaria, sent Eberhard Sinner, his chief of staff, into the fray to declare himself “optimistic” that Berlin’s grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats would overturn any veto under the right conditions.
The Social Democrats have been less forthcoming. But media executives and government officials have noted that Markus Schachter, head of ZDF public-TV and friend of party grandees, on Tuesday said Springer now deserved a “fair chance”.