RTL chief stands by C5

B'caster's goal: reach No. 2 spot in U.K.'s commercial market

LONDON — The topper at RTL, Europe’s largest commercial broadcaster, has declared his ambition to turn Blighty’s Channel 5 into the country’s second commercial web.

In a keynote speech to an audience of international industry honchos at the Royal Television Society’s London confab Tuesday, a bullish Didier Bellens said he had no intention of selling C5 to Rupert Murdoch, a move that will be made possible under new U.K. media cross-ownership rules.

“Our next goal is to reach the No. 2 spot in the U.K.’s commercial market,” said Bellens, whose company controls 65% of the station, soon to be relaunched as Five.

He added: “It is a tough challenge, especially when one looks at the program budgets of ITV and Channel 4. But we at RTL like tough challenges, because when you overcome them, it usually means that you are creating value.”

One obstacle to the web’s further growth could be the possible resignation of CEO Dawn Airey, who is being courted to take over struggling ITV, Blighty’s biggest commercial network.

Wallet crunch

Airey may stay if more money is invested in C5’s program budget, a move Bellens appears to support. However, he may have his hands tied by the station’s minority shareholder, United Business Media, which has opposed budget hikes in the past.

C5’s audience share is just under 6% — around four points lower than its nearest rival, Channel 4, but the upstart is expected to break even shortly and is enjoying new kudos after adopting a less populist editorial policy.

Referring to speculation that Luxembourg-based RTL might be prepared to sell C5, enabling a merger with Murdoch-backed Sky One, Bellens declared that he “had no intention of handing over control of Channel 5 to anyone.”

Bellens also revealed he was opposed to plans to open up control of British TV stations to U.S. ownership, a policy the government is determined to push despite reservations from media figures, including ex-movie producer David Puttnam.

“For us the question is one of equal access,” Bellens told the conference. “Why open up to investors from all over the world, including the U.S. and Australia when there is no reciprocity. Why give large U.S. firms an advantage that European media firms do not have in the U.S?

“We are not against U.S. investment in Europe but simply asking for the same treatment.”

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