Saban lifts veil of secrecy

Leader promises more accessibility

BERLIN — The arrival of Haim Saban in Germany promises a new direction for Germany’s biggest broadcasting group and fundamental changes for the country’s TV industry as a whole.

It’s too early to know exactly what impact Saban and his acquisition of the multi-channel ProSiebenSat.1 is likely to have on Germany’s media market. One major change Saban may bring, however, is an end to the secrecy and opaque business practices that marked the reign of ProSiebenSat.1’s former owner, Leo Kirch.

The Israeli-American Saban and his staff have wooed the local media with a candidness, humor and accessibility rarely seen among Germany’s media elite. As the company’s majority owner, Saban is accountable to fellow shareholders and the growing demand for transparency following the collapse of Kirch, as well as high-profile implosions like Enron and WorldCom, is unlikely to allow the kind of closed-door shenanigans that caused the Kirch meltdown.

‘New perspective’

“Haim Saban will hopefully bring in a new perspective and a new way of thinking. That can’t be bad,” says Joerg Laumann, TV editor of trade magazine Blickpunkt .

“On a political level, it’s good to get a breath of fresh air. While the RTL group is traditionally close to the SPD (left of center), Kirch was close to the conservative right. And the public-service broadcasters are also a playing field for national politics. The political sides have really hardened and it’s good that someone who’s not already entrenched in German party politics enters the scene.”

That’s not to say Germany’s new mogul is apolitical. Saban is known in Washington, D.C., as one of the Democratic Party’s biggest donors and counts among his pals such diverse personalities as Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In his first go at ProSiebenSat.1 earlier this year, Saban was so serious about the deal that he sought assistance from the U.S. Embassy, which quickly contacted both the German chancellor’s office as well as Bavarian state leaders on Saban’s behalf in an effort to give him “a fair chance” in the bidding for the Kirch assets.

Reflecting the close ties to his homeland, Saban has also expressed his distaste for German and European coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling it extremely one-sided.

Balanced coverage

Stressing that he would stay out of German politics, Saban nevertheless sent a clear message that coverage of Israel must be balanced.

“Generally in Europe — and I am not referring to a specific broadcaster — coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict is one-sided. I tell my people that I don’t have any plans to interfere journalistically, but they have to remain balanced. They have to present both sides. That is what viewers want. Beyond that, I will completely keep out of Germany’s political scene.”

Saban has also signaled a willingness to take on Germany’s all-powerful pubcasters ARD and ZDF, which he has condemned for using advertising to augment their financing through mandatory license fees.

As for day-to-day operations at ProSiebenSat.1, company execs say its business as usual, especially since CEO Urs Rohner received a two-year extension to his contract.

One major change to the company’s executive board was the appointment of Guillaume de Posch, former deputy general manager of Gallic pay TV company TPS, as the group’s new chief operating officer.

De Posch, who has repped TPS in major deals with Hollywood studios, is to oversee programming at the network.

The move is expected to help stabilize ProSiebenSat.1 and boost shareholder confidence in the group, which has been battered by the Kirch insolvency, the advertising slump and the loss of market share to rival RTL.

Cash infusion

Another major change to the broadcaster is a much needed capital increase of some E280 million ($314 million) that Saban has guaranteed.

While a portion of that may be used to pay back some of the company’s $915 million of debt, programmers at ProSiebenSat.1’s channels don’t reject the possibility of bigger programming budgets.

“By providing enhanced capital resources and necessary stability, we are confident that ProSiebenSat.1 has the potential to become the most successful television broadcasting company in Europe,” Saban says.

ProSiebenSat.1 is Saban’s first major acquisition but unlikely to be the last. He is eyeing U.K. commercial web ITV.

Saban relies on a strong team of advisers that includes Adam Chesnoff, prexy and chief operating officer of Saban Capital, and former Fox Kids topper Ynon Kreiz, who is expected to take charge of expanding his international operations.

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