German feevee standout

Canal+ says it won't let Premiere float away

BERLIN – As the struggle between Bertelsmann and Bavarian media magnate Leo Kirch for control of German pay TV channel Premiere continues, Canal Plus, the third shareholder in Premiere, said on Monday that it’s not ready to pull out of the embattled web just yet.

A spokeswoman for the French paybox denied rumors in the German press that Canal Plus is looking to shed its 37.5% share in Premiere. Canal Plus topper Pierre Lescure told French daily Le Figaro that such speculations were “rash.” Since October of last year, said Lescure, Premiere has been doing better than ever before.

Launched in the early ’90s as Germany’s first pay TV channel, Premiere limped along for five years before finally starting to take off in 1996. The web, which broadcasts premium movies and sporting events, grew by 30% last year, finally hitting the break-even point in December.

But media giant Bertelsmann, with a 37.5% stake in Premiere, and Leo Kirch, who holds a 25% share in the web, continue to argue over the digital future of the channel. Kirch, who launched a digital pay TV platform called DF1 in the summer, would like to add Premiere’s 1.4 million subscribers to DF1’s platform.

Bertelsmann, which dropped its own plans to launch a digital channel bouquet in the fall, sees Premiere as the answer to its digital dreams. Premiere’s Bertelsmann-friendly man-aging director, Bernd Kundrun, recently announced that Premiere would begin digital test runs in February – but without DF1.

Premiere and DF1 have been locked in a legal battle since August, primarily over the right to broadcast and advertise top movies. Finding a loophole in German media law, which is not yet prepared to deal with digital broadcasting, Premiere hit DF1 where it hurts when it obtained a legal injunction last week preventing DF1 from recruiting subscribers outside of the state of Bavaria, which issued DF1’s operating license. DF1 expects to get a suspension of the ban this week.While Premiere is currently controlled primarily by Bertelsmann, Kirch is looking for opportunities to bring the web over to his side.

Kirch appeared closer to winning the struggle for Premiere in December as Canal Plus, apparently anxious to acquire Kirch’s shares in Italian pay TV channel Telepiu, seemed to be on the verge of selling its shares in Premiere to Kirch in exchange for the Telepiu stake.

Given the uncertain future of Telepiu’s broadcasting license and Premiere’s impressive gains in recent months, Canal Plus seems to be biding its time after all before putting its shares up for sale.

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