Kirch to keep focus on German markets

Mogul talks about his company's future

BERLIN — In his first interview in nearly four years, media mogul Leo Kirch has vowed not to pull the plug on his financially troubled pay TV web Premiere World and said he will keep the focus of his business empire on German-speaking markets.

Speaking to German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the enigmatic and notoriously media-shy Kirch said he was optimistic about his feevee venture.

Kirch, who turns 75 this month, also controls Germany’s biggest broadcasting group, ProSiebenSat 1 Media, and 40% of newspaper publishing giant Springer.

With Kirch’s terrestrial TV, film and sports rights division, Kirch Media, set to go public next year, the mogul’s willingness to speak to the press may be an effort to achieve more transparency in the otherwise nebulous Kirch Group.

At a loss over Premiere

He admitted the company had hoped to have 3 million-4 million subscribers for pay TV service Premiere by now, but only 2.5 million have signed up. Kirch confirmed that his feevee biz was losing about $500 million a year and said miscalculations on his part had not helped.

But he added that disunity in the market, resistance from pubcasters and the long battle for a technical standard in digital transmission, finally achieved last month, had left customers wary of pay TV.

Kirch remains convinced that big live events, like Formula One motor racing and World Cup soccer championships, will attract auds more than series or films.

Even though he has 75% of Formula One under his control, Kirch wants founder Bernie Ecclestone on board as his partner.

On the subject of new 800 pound gorilla in German cable, John Malone, Kirch questioned the near monopoly given to Malone’s Liberty Media. Malone controls six of Germany’s nine regional cable systems. Kirch also rejected a possible pay TV alliance with Malone, something in which the latter has expressed an interest.

Meanwhile, Kirch may have to buy back Rupert Murdoch’s 22% stake in Premiere next year if the web fails to reach its target figures.

Hahn’s next in line

Kirch reiterated that Kirch Group deputy CEO Dieter Hahn would succeed him in the top job. Hahn will also take the reins of Kirch Media following a merger with its publicly listed subsidiary ProSiebenSat 1 Media next year.

Jan Mojto, who heads Kirch Media, will reportedly step down from his post, and from the executive board, at Kirch Media. Mojto will remain with the company to focus on film production and play a role in the management of the Kirch family foundation, which is not related to the Kirch business.

A Kirch spokesman would not confirm or deny the report, adding that the firm would not comment on the future makeup of the board.

Although he holds only a 40% stake in Springer, Kirch said he’s happy to hold on to it in the face of impending mergers in the newspaper industry. A wave of consolidation is coming, and he wants to be part of it, he added. He also hinted that he’d like to see Springer take a greater role in German-speaking territories, which is exactly where Kirch wants to keep his own business focused. “There is enough unoccupied space here that others don’t see and that I want to fill,” he said.

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