Australian antitrust regulator clears Murdoch to buy Ten Network

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's antitrust regulator cleared on Thursday a consortium led by News Corp NWSA.O Co-Chairman Lachlan Murdoch to buy free-to-air television broadcaster Ten Network Holdings Ltd TEN.AX, saying the move would not harm competition.

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Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Rod Sims said that while the deal would reduce diversity of opinion in a market already dominated by a handful of companies including News, it would not “substantially lessen competition”.

The Australian government has proposed liberalizing media ownership laws including removing the so-called “two out of three” rule, which prevents a single party from owning print, radio and television assets in the same market.

The Ten deal relies on the government succeeding in that plan, with a bill passed by the lower house of parliament but facing opposition in the senate.

Sims did not say whether or how a Murdoch-led Ten buyout would align with current rules, since Murdoch owns a radio station and News Corp publishes about two-thirds of the country’s newspapers.

News Corp’s half-owned cable television company Foxtel and Murdoch personally already own about a fifth of Ten, which has a market capitalization of A$58 million ($45.88 million).

“The ACCC is not oblivious to the fact that significant influence can be exerted through partial shareholdings and family connections, however the ACCC did take into consideration that this is a proposed 50 percent acquisition by Illyria,” Sims said in a statement on Thursday, referring to Murdoch’s private company.

Murdoch’s buyout partner, Australian regional television veteran Bruce Gordon, would own the other 50 percent of Ten, Sims added.

Australia's media owners argue the current media ownership rules are out-dated and hurt their ability to compete for advertising dollars with online players like Facebook Inc FB.O and Google GOOGL.O.

A spokesman for KordaMentha, Ten’s administrator, declined comment, while a spokesman for PPB Advisory, which is running the Ten sale, had no immediate comment.

Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Stephen Coates