CEO sees future in digital broadcasting

CANNES — RTL Group CEO Gerhard Zeiler kicked off the first in a series of keynote addresses at this year’s Mip TV confab Monday. Zeiler delivered an optimistic speech entitled “Capturing Digital Opportunities: Traditional Media Strikes Back.”

Followed by a lively Q&A with Variety’s editor-at-large, Elizabeth Guider, Zeiler made his first strike with a series of comparisons between the hoopla surrounding the mega Internet deals of six months ago, and the current flurry of activity focused on European broadcasters.

“Had I been standing here six months ago, talking about the future of traditional broadcasters, I probably would have started by listing all the latest digital mega-deals like Google and YouTube; News Corp and MySpace,” he said. “Lately, however, a number of very different deals have made the headlines: merger and acquisitions activities around traditional TV businesses.”

Citing a number of recent examples (private equity investors buy German broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1 Media and intend to merge it with broadcasting group SBS; BSkyB invests in broadcasting heavyweight ITV in the U.K.; content producer Endemol is up for sale and has interest from all sides), Zeiler said, “I think the message is clear: traditional broadcasting, until recently waved aside by some as ‘so yesterday,’ is in fact a very active and attractive business.”

Zeiler presented four pointers for traditional broadcasters in the digital age, which he described as follows: “In the digital age, consumers will be able to watch: whatever they want; whenever they want to; and wherever they want to.”

As a first step, Zeiler urged players to embrace fragmentation. “Let’s fragment ourselves before we will be fragmented by others.”

Per Zeiler, a family of channels is key to any strategy for success, and the way forward at a time in which distribution outlets are no longer the rare commodity they once were.

Zeiler also urged broadcasters to see new technology, a la mobile telephones, IP-TV and video-on-demand, as presenting new distribution opportunities in another sense. His perspective: Groups such as RTL are really in the content and brand business, not distribution, and should therefore see these platforms as a bonus.

As a final note, Zeiler suggested broadcasters diversify their sources of income and expand beyond pure advertising to embrace subscription, transactional revenues and content sales. He should know. Today, around 40% of RTL Group’s revenues come from non-advertising business.

Defying the overnight establishment of new brands, a la Google and YouTube, Zeiler repeated his recent call for old-school players:

“Content is king. But — at least that’s my belief — brand is king’s boss. Only they offer light-poles for orientation in the hyper-fragmented digital world. Our main task will be to protect our content and brands and to secure our copyrights. This, we will fight for with all necessary force.”

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