New CLT-Ufa is region's largest TV operator

PARIS — Nine months after it was first unveiled, the powerhouse merger between Compagnie Luxembour-geoise de Telediffusion and German group Bertelsmann’s Ufa audiovisual arm is now official.

With annual sales of $3.1 billion, the new CLT-Ufa is now Europe’s largest television operator, with broadcasting outlets stretching from Germany to Benelux and from France to the U.K.

Speaking in Luxembourg on Tuesday, the new management team outlined its immediate goals and stressed that initial attention will be devoted to developing core businesses. “In order of priority, I would say that we are looking at Channel 5 in the U.K., TPS in France and RTL 7 in Poland, while on the radio front it’s Talk Radio in the U.K.,” noted Remy Sautter, who shares the title of CEO of CLT-Ufa with German counterpart Rolf Schmidt-Holtz.

$1 billion nest egg

The new company has a 29% stake in the U.K.’s fifth network, which is set to start broadcasting in March. In France, CLT-Ufa has 20% of fledgling Gallic digital consortium Television Par Satellite. It is also sitting on a substantial nest egg: As part of the deal, Bertelsmann brought a dowry of $1.1 billion to the table.

As the ink dried on the official merger documents, CLT-Ufa found itself at the center of considerable speculation covering several territories.

Last week the company was being linked to a consortium that was said to be seriously interested in taking a stake in Los Angeles-based New Line Cinema. Speaking to Daily Variety, however, Sautter acknowledged that CLT-Ufa had seen the New Line prospectus, “but that’s as far as it goes.” Sautter said the company would not be taking even a minority stake in the Hollywood production and distribution company, and Schmidt-Holtz added that film production is not a main priority for CLT-Ufa.

Sautter also ruled out speculation that a merged CLT-Ufa might reconsider its 20% stake in France’s digital plat-form TPS. In the past it had been thought that a strategic digital alliance between Bertelsmann and Gallic paybox Canal Plus would make a CLT presence in TPS difficult because Canal Plus has a rival platform, Canal Satellite. But that marriage between Canal Plus and Bertelsmann basically has dissolved, leaving CLT-Ufa free to carry on with TPS.

Disney investment ruled out

In Germany, attention is now likely to focus on pay TV Premiere and the company’s three webs, RTL, RTL2 and Super RTL — in which Disney has a 50% stake. German press reports on Monday suggested that Disney is keen to take a stake in CLT-Ufa as well as shares in the holding company that is set to oversee RTL, RTL 2 and Super RTL. Both Schmidt-Holtz and Sautter ruled out any suggestion that Disney will take a stake in the newly formed TV giant.

Premiere, the paybox that is jointly owned by Bertelsmann, Canal Plus and the Kirch group, remains the subject of tough negotiations. Kirch would like to see Premiere on its recently launched DF1 digital platform, and Rupert Murdoch has expressed an interest in taking a stake in the pay TV channel.

“We are not against the idea of Murdoch coming into Premiere,” noted Schmidt-Holtz. “As for the service going onto DF1, this is something we are talking to Kirch about, but the negotiations are not easy.”

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