Next Media Says $536 Million Taiwan Asset Sale Falls Through

Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lai’s sale of his Taiwan newspaper and magazine collapsed amid protests that the NT$16 billion ($536 million) deal would silence a critical voice on China and give the buyers too much control of the island’s media.

A deadline to execute the Next Media Ltd. sale to investors led by Tsai Shao-Chung, whose family owns Taiwan’s China Times Group, won’t be extended, Next spokesman Mark Simon said in a telephone interview today. Next still plans to sell its television assets in Taiwan, he said.

The deal’s failure prevents the transfer of Lai’s Apple Daily, Sharp Daily and Next Magazine, with a combined circulation of about 1 million, to interests seen as more favorable to China. Protesters rallying against Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, who has championed closer economic ties with the mainland, urged regulators to block the sale at a rally in January.

Taiwan has been ruled separately from China since 1949 when the Kuomintang party fled to the island during a civil war with Communist forces. Relations between Taiwan and China reached their warmest in more than six decades as Ma focused on economic ties and dropped the pro-independence rhetoric of his predecessor.

“We’re against the concentration of media in the hands of pro-China interests,” Jason Lin, a spokesman for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, said by phone today, declining to comment on the Next Media deal.

Next Media’s shares have fallen 16 percent this year, compared with the 1.8 percent drop for Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index. The stock is suspended today pending a statement.

Regulatory Concerns

“Next Media is going back to the print business in Taiwan,” Simon said. Lai signed an agreement in November to sell his print assets in Taiwan to local businessmen including Tsai of the China Times Group, which controls the Commercial Times newspaper, Taiwan’s CtiTV and at least five other media outlets according to its website.

Owning the Apple Daily would give the Tsai family more than 45 percent of the island’s newspaper market, according to National Chung Cheng University’s Kuang Chung-Hsiang, raising regulatory concerns.

“If one of these conglomerates gets control of too many media, it gives the family that controls it a real effective microphone in influencing public opinion,” said Doug Young, author of the book “The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China. ‘‘They probably don’t want too much of that concentrated in one family.’’

Anti-Beijing Stance

The Taipei-based Economic Daily News earlier today reported that the sale might fall through because Tsai Eng-meng, the father of the Next Media bidders’ leader, sought to pare the purchase back to avoid antitrust queries into his family’s media ownership. Tsai Eng-Meng is Taiwan’s richest man and chairs Hong Kong-listed food and drink maker Want Want China Holdings Ltd. as well as controlling China Times Group.

The elder Tsai’s $2.4 billion purchase of cable operator China Network Systems Co. is still subject to approval from Taiwan’s broadcast regulator. Last month the regulator said the purchaser hadn’t fulfilled its conditions.

Next Media’s Apple Daily and Next Magazine are banned in mainland China because of their anti-Beijing stance. Lai started the Taiwan version of Next magazine in 2001, followed by Apple Daily, known for celebrity gossip and graphic depictions of violent crimes.

Simon said Next Media still plans to sell its loss-making television assets in Taiwan, which include Next TV, for NT$1.5 billion.

The bidders for Next Media’s print assets included William Wong of the Formosa Plastics Group, Chinatrust Charity Foundation Chairman Jeffrey Koo Jr. and Lung Yen Life Service Corp. Chairman Li Shih-tsung. Li didn’t return calls seeking comments. Ken Wang, a spokesman at Chinatrust Commercial Bank, couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.