The Russian television channel ORT, in which the Russian government is a minority shareholder, is negotiating over the purchase of 10 percent of Israel's Russian-language station Israel Plus.
Israel Plus is controlled by diamond baron Lev Leviev, who owns 42 percent of the station through his Africa Israel company. Leviev is considered close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Last week, representatives of ORT visited Israel Plus's offices in Tel Aviv. The channel's chairman, Pini Cohen, who is also Africa Israel's chief executive, confirmed the negotiations, but said that ORT is only one of several parties with which Israel Plus is discussing a partnership.
ORT, which is jointly owned by the Russian government and private businessmen, already broadcasts in Israel via both cable and satellite. However, the two stations would still be able to share content if an agreement were signed.
Any agreement would have to be approved by the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Council and the communications minister. CSBC Chairman Yoram Mokedy said that, due to regulatory restrictions on the ownership of Israeli channels by foreign governments, ORT could not purchase more than 10 percent of Israel Plus.
Leviev apparently wants a partner to help shoulder the company's heavy losses. From the time it began broadcasting in November 2002, through the end of third-quarter 2003, the channel lost NIS 70.5 million, and in the fourth quarter, it apparently lost some NIS 30 million more. A major factor in these losses has been the fierce competition for advertising among the many Russian-language channels broadcasting to Israel - a problem that may be eased by the CSBC's recent decision to bar ORT from airing Israeli advertisements. And though Israel Plus has higher ratings that any other Russian-language channel, its ratings remain disappointing, reaching only about 9 percent in January.
Last week, the poor ratings and mounting losses led the company to fire its CEO, Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich, who had been one of the channel's founders and had led it since its inception.
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