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Australian government open to CBS takeover of local network

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's communication's minister said Tuesday he did not have a preference for who owned troubled Australian television broadcaster Ten Network, with U.S. giant CBS Corp. making a takeover offer while a bid by local media moguls remains stymied in the Senate.

The CBS bid for the network's owner, Ten Network Holdings Ltd., announced on Monday, has yet to be approved by Ten creditors and the Australia's Foreign Investment Review Board, which has to be convinced such takeovers are in the national interest.

The sale price will be revealed in a report to creditors this week. Communications Minister Mitch Fifield on Tuesday declined to comment on the likely of CBS passing the national interest test. "I'm someone who sits back from these things and I let the markets do their job," Fifield told Australian Broadcasting Corp. "I'm proprietor agnostic."

Ten appointed administrators as an alternative to filing for bankruptcy in June after its billionaire backers, Lachlan Murdoch and Bruce Gordon, refused to guarantee a new 250 million Australian dollar ($198 million) bank loan when a current AU$200 million loan is due to expire in December.

Murdoch, who co-chairs News Corp. with his father Rupert, and Gordon, who owns regional network WIN Television, want to each buy a 50 percent share in the Ten. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the competition watchdog, said last week it would not oppose the joint bid, saying it was unlikely to result in a "substantial lessening of competition in any relevant market."

But the deal is blocked by federal laws passed in the 1980s to ensure diversity of media ownership. The government is currently negotiating with the Senate to relax those laws and allow Murdoch and Gordon to buy the network.

Fifield said the law still needed to be changed despite the CBS offer. Australian media executives support the changes, but the Senate has blocked them. Senate concerns largely surround the dominance of New Corp. in Australian media.

"What I want to do is give our Australian domestic media organizations the greatest range of options when it comes to dance partners," Fifield said. "That's what I want to see — more options, a viable Australian media industry and journalists employed. That's good for our democracy," he added.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Monday welcomed the prospect of CBS taking over the Australian network, saying: "If that goes ahead, fine." "I certainly would welcome the Ten Network coming into a period of stable ownership and financially stable circumstances. That would be in the interests of the network, its employees and, of course its viewers," Turnbull told reporters.

CBS is the biggest creditor of Australia's third most popular free-to-air commercial TV network. CBS already sells Ten a range of programs including long-running military crime drama "NCIS" as well as past programming like "CSI" and "The Good Wife."

CBS said it plans to use the takeover to launch its subscription streaming service "CBS All Access" in the Australian market.

This story has been corrected with the name of the CBS program "NCIS."

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