Bertelsmann, the German media corporation which is the majority shareholder of French commercial broadcaster M6, is testing the market over a potential sale of that asset. 

The Financial Times (FT) newspaper reported yesterday (September 22) that Bertelsmann had asked for indicative bids by today (September 23), to consider the market's appetite for a sale of M6. 

This news comes after the collapse of the proposed merger between M6 and fellow commercial network TF1 – owned by Group Bouygues – as reported earlier this week.

Thomas Rabe, chief executive at Bertelsmann, has told the FT he has asked for non-binding offers, adding that so far he has been “inundated with expressions of interest.”

Rabe has been quoted by the FT as saying: “This is why we are testing the market. We will decide on the basis of the test whether to sell or not.”

The RTL Group controlled by Bertelsmann owns a stake of 48.3% in M6 – these shares initially fell by over 5% in value since the TF1 merger fell through late last week.

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The FT has reported that multiple consortiums are considering bids, including one led by the MediaForEurope conglomerate, one led by telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel, and one from the French media giant Vivendi.

Daniel Kretinsky, the billionaire from the Czech Republic who holds a minority stake in English soccer’s West Ham United, is also reportedly assessing whether to get involved. 

The original plan by Rabe and Bertelsmann to merge M6 with TF1 fell through when the French competition authority strongly opposed the deal. 

Rabe added to the FT that “M6 is one of the best-run TV groups in Europe … RTL group has no pressure to sell M6, we believe that consolidation will happen in the French market sooner or later – with different options [so] we are patient and can wait.”

If Bertelsmann and RTL are to sell off M6, they must do so by early 2023 – M6's broadcast license is up for renewal in May next year, and after renewing it, the majority shareholder (RTL) would not be allowed to sell for another five years, due to current regulations.

The TF1-M6 merger was set to go through by the end of the year but was delayed after the French Competition Authority began a review of the agreement.

Among several things, the regulator explored how the proposed tie-up would impact the acquisition of broadcast rights in France and the publishing and marketing of television channels.

The authority also identified several concerns with the deal, including the “significant market shares” the new entity would potentially command.

This is despite the broadcasters claiming to have offered several “remedies” to gain the necessary regulatory approval to conclude the deal.

It was initially announced in May 2021 that TF1 and M6 had entered into exclusive negotiations to join forces.

The merger would have resulted in the creation of a French broadcasting powerhouse comprising TV, radio, digital, content production, and technology assets, with €3.4 billion in annual revenue.

TF1 and M6 argued that the tie-up was necessary to meet the challenge presented by increasing influential global digital platforms, such as Netflix and Amazon.

In the midst of the proposed merger, TF1 and M6 have continued to acquire major sports rights in the country in recent months.

In July, TF1 secured exclusive rights to cover the France men’s national soccer team matches until the end of the 2027-28 season.

That agreement came after TF1 and M6 agreed on a contract to show France’s matches in the 2022-23 UEFA Nations League in May.

M6 and TF1 share rights to France’s various qualification matches for top-tier tournaments and last year agreed to share rights to the delayed 2020 European Championship in a deal worth €50 million ($50 million).

The pair also have an agreement to share a package of 25 matches for the 2024 European Championships.

Elsewhere, earlier this week the Paris Commercial Court ruled that French pay-TV heavyweight Canal Plus (owned by Vivendi) is not obliged to broadcast the channels of TF1.

TF1 had taken legal action earlier this month against Canal Plus, seeking a judge’s ruling that would restore its channels’ place on TNT Sat, a Canal Plus-operated station that gives viewers in remote rural areas access to satellite TV. 

Now, however, the Paris court has ruled that Canal Plus is not obliged to bring back this service and that stopping the broadcast has not caused either “unlawful disturbance or imminent damage.”

TF1 has now been ordered to pay Canal Plus’ various legal costs for this case.

The court ruled that neither the official contract between the two parties or French law required the TF1 signal on TNT Sat to be distributed by Canal Plus.

The row between the two broadcasters began in late August after Canal Plus terminated the carriage deal in place with TF1 and stopped broadcasting its channels. 

This was due to what Canal Plus called “unfounded and unreasonable” remuneration demands from TF1, which has raised the fees it has been asking for in light of reviewing its overall carriage deal structure. 

Among the top-tier sports rights held by TF1 which are, as of now, unavailable for Canal Plus viewers to access are the majority of matches played by the French men’s soccer national team between 2022 and 2028, the final of European club soccer’s UEFA Champions League, and highlights of the domestic top-flight Ligue 1 (through a deal with Amazon struck last month).

In terms of upcoming events and tournaments meanwhile, TF1 will cover matches at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November and December and is the exclusive rightsholder for next year’s Rugby World Cup (staged in France).

The two networks have locked horns regarding this issue before, in early 2018.

On that occasion, after Canal Plus took several TF1 channels off air in similar circumstances, the situation was only resolved after the CSA, France’s audiovisual regulatory body, intervened, alongside the country’s culture minister.