The Italian Senate has approved a controversial bill for the reform of Italy's TV system, which is set to consolidate Silvio Berlusconi's sprawling media empire.

The Gasparri Law was approved in a 155-126 vote despite fierce opposition from the centre-left coalition and some opposition from within Berlusconi's own centre-right party.

It must now receive the seal of approval of Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who is expected to sign the bill within days.

The new law, which paves the way for digital TV transmission, will also let companies control a bigger slice of the advertising market. As such, it could allow Fininvest to increase its share of Italy's total advertising market by at least 20 percent.

The reform also means that Rai 3 will be allowed to continue to benefit from advertising revenue. At the same time, Berlusconi's Rete 4 channel - one of his three private networks - will be allowed to continue to broadcast on free-to-air television. Provisions had been made by previous centre-left governments to transfer Rete 4 to satellite TV, thereby freeing up 1600 terrestrial broadcasting frequencies.

"It's a good law for Italy's telecommunications system," said Mediaset president Fedele Confalonieri. He responded to critics by saying: "Its only mistake is that hasn't taken away from us one of our channels, as some people hoped it would."

One of the most inflammatory points of the new law is that it will also enable television networks to own newspapers. Opposition politicians argue that the law was tailor-made for Berlusconi, who also owns Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Italy's biggest magazine publisher, and will allow him to increase his sway over public opinion.

To skirt the current law prohibiting television stations from owning newspapers, Berlusconi handed over control of the Milan-based daily Il Giornale ten years ago to his brother, Paolo. His wife owns a stake in another influential Milan newspaper, Il Foglio.

"The Gasparri law represents one of the blackest chapters in the history of communications and democracy," said Paolo Serventi Longhi, secretary of Italy's national press union.

"It favours the interests of the Prime Minister, minimises pluralism of information, limits the free development of people's minds and will damage the financial stability of a large part of the press," he said.

As a result of the Gasparri law, state broadcaster RAI's board will widen to include 9 members, compared to the current 5 that are hand-picked by Parliament.

Four board members will be picked by the government while three will be chosen by the opposition. Two executives will be selected by the Treasury, which owns RAI.