CANNES — An obscure satellite-delivered weblet in Germany called Vox may become the new focus of Rupert Murdoch’s asset-building in the hottest market in Europe.

Having recently scuppered his digital alliance with local German TV kingpin Leo Kirch, Murdoch may soon take steps to upgrade the programming and the marketing of what has up to now been an also-ran news and infotainment service whose market share hovers around 4%. Murdoch’s News Corp. holds a 49% stake in the weblet and retains management control.

Speaking to journalists Saturday during the second day of activity at the Mip TV trade show here on the French riviera, 20th Century Fox Intl. Television president Mark Kaner suggested that his company planned to invest substantially in Vox to make it a genuine player in the lucrative German market.

First-rate designs

“We’re not in the business of building or running second-rate services,” Kaner told Daily Variety. And without indicating a precise timetable, Kaner added that he was working on getting Fox Kids Network launched in Germany, as well as in other Euro territories. Fox Kids is already up and running in the U.K.but is facing stiff competition from a clutch of other children’s channels.

As to why Murdoch pulled the plug a few months ago on his partnership with Kirch to launch and market the digital platform called DF1, Kaner said his boss did not see eye to eye with Kirch on the operation and marketing of the service. “Rupert likes to exercise more control in the companies he’s involved with,” Kaner said.

DF1 launched last July and so far has only drummed up some 30,000 subscribers for its bouquet of 30-odd digital channels. Kirch can count on output of movies and TV shows from all the Hollywood majors — except Fox — for DF1. The only problem is that he is supposed to pay a whopping $600 million a year for 10 years in order to guarantee that supply.

Kaner’s division is the subject of much speculation on the Croisette in Cannes because it is the only Hollywood major not to have clinched a megabuck deal with Kirch for the supply of product to his digital platform last year. Now that Rupert is “reviewing his options” in Germany, the free and pay TV deals done by Twentieth could help re-draw the competitive battle lines in that territory.

Programming roll

“Fox is on a roll right now programming-wise,” said one U.S. distrib source, adding that eventually deals done by that studio in Germany — probably within the next few months — will be “very lucrative, well above the $100 million mark.”

In other remarks, 20th Century Intl. Television exec VP Marion Edwards confirmed that prices for U.S. TV shows — especially the high-end shows like Fox’s “Murder One,” “Chicago Hope,” “The Simpsons,” “The X-Files” and “Millennium” — have ratcheted up in the last couple of years.

” ‘NYPD Blue’ (another Fox show) broke the barrier and pushed the bar higher,” said Edwards. She reckons that a solid studio-produced hour drama readily fetches $500,000 per episode from international sales these days. She even suspects one or two may have broken the million-an-episode barrier, though she declined to name any of Fox’s that might have done so. In any case, such figures drive home the fact that international sales are no longer just the icing on the cake to the studios back home.

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