German pay TV group has 3.25 mil subscribers

BERLIN — German pay TV group Premiere said Monday it is preparing to go public in March.

The surprise move comes a week after execs at equity group Permira, Premiere’s main shareholder, hinted that the IPO might not take place at all this year.

Premiere chief Georg Kofler, who owns a 20% stake in the paybox, has been pushing for a stock market offering, and an agreement was reached over the weekend between the company’s management and shareholders.

Permira exec Thomas Krenz said last week that there was no rush to float the web in 2005, adding that bids from potential investors were below Premiere’s assessed value.

With the meltdown of the Neuer Markt still weighing on the minds of investors, local observers have questioned the timing of the IPO. Yet the flotation could allow for a simple change of ownership, with a new main investment group taking a major stake in the company.

Permira owns 55% of Premiere, Kofler 20% and HypoVereinsbank and Bayerische Landesbank 10% each. The remaining shares are split among Premiere execs.

While Premiere has made a remarkable turnaround in the past three years, it has yet to achieve a bottom-line profit. Company, which helped trigger the collapse of former parent Kirch Group in 2002 due to its losses, may soon face competition from Germany’s newly upgraded cable companies, which plan to offer video-on-demand and movie channels of their own.

With 3.25 million subscribers, Premiere has about 8% market penetration. Company execs point to neighboring markets like the U.K. and France, where penetration reaches 40%, saying Premiere has room to grow.

Yet with some 35 free-to-air channels and monthly license fees set to reach about $23 a month this spring, pay TV is a hard sell in Germany.

Eleven banks are assisting in Premiere’s flotation, with HypoVereinsbank, Credit Suisse First Boston and Morgan Stanley acting as global coordinators.

Premiere narrowed its net loss in the first nine months of 2004 by 76% to $32 million, while revenue climbed 7.4% to $940 million.

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