German TV kicks it up a notch

Merger mania breaks up summer haze

BERLIN — It’s the German sommerloch, or summer hole, when the country all but shuts down and TV execs and their families take off to the Alps, Tuscany or Mayorca to unwind.

Yet with several deals set to dramatically reshape Germany’s TV landscape and new players eager to expand across Europe, this summer is anything but normal.

This month the country’s biggest TV group, ProSiebenSat 1, bought SBS Broadcasting for e3.3 billion ($4.4 billion), creating a European broadcasting giant and a viable rival to Bertelsmann’s pan-European RTL Group.

RTL meanwhile has inked an asset swap with John De Mol in Netherlands while on the feevee front the shuttering of Arena has left the field clear for Premiere. And Leo Kirch shows he can’t be counted out.

But the 800-pound gorilla is the enlarged ProSiebenSat 1, which will operate in 13 countries with 24 free TV, 24 pay TV and 22 radio networks among its assets.

The Munich-based group is expecting a combined annual revenue of $4.2 billion and above-the-line profit of $930 million, making it Europe’s second-largest TV conglom behind RTL, which last year made $7.7 billion in revenue and a gross profit of $1.2 billion.

With the ability to make pan-European rights deals, ProSiebenSat 1 is expecting long-term savings in programming acquisitions. It is already one of the major buyers of U.S. content in Germany, where it carries “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Lost,” “Jericho” and “The OC.”

Patrick Tillieux, ProSiebenSat 1’s new chief operating officer and SBS CEO, says the conglom will “share resources on a group-wide basis and leverage our purchasing and sales power,” adding the merger will improve access to rights, and expand the group’s presence in the advertising market.

ProSiebenSat 1 topper Guillaume de Posch has said the group is eager to expand further in Europe and, indeed, a day after completing the SBS takeover, it added Austrian free TV channel Puls TV to its growing list of continental outlets.

Eastern Europe, where the group has channels in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, looks likely to become a battleground as RTL has also sought expansion in its fast-growing markets.

RTL has been anything but idle and is boosting its holdings in the Netherlands, where it inked an asset-swap deal with Dutch TV tycoon de Mol, making him a 26.3% shareholder in RTL Nederland.

In return, RTL Nederland is set to acquire De Mol’s Dutch media holdings, including channel Tien (to be re-branded as an RTL outlet, most likely RTL 8).

On the pay TV front, upstart sports channel Arena is folding after just a year on air, leaving satellite platform Premiere the only feevee power in Germany.

The federal cartel office is reviewing a deal that would allow Premiere to take over Arena’s lucrative top league Bundesliga soccer rights.

Unity Media, Germany’s second-largest cable operator, launched Arena last year after acquiring Bundesliga rights from under Premiere’s nose for $300 million per season. That coup cost Premiere dearly — the paybox’s share price plunged 45% to an all-time low of $14.85 after losing soccer in December 2005.

But Arena unable to get a distribution deal with Kabel Deutschland, Germany’s biggest cable provider was forced to ink a satellite distribution agreement with Premiere this year. The arrangement was halted in April after regulators launched a probe into the partnership.

The antitrust watchdog is expected to approve the partnership in coming days.

Premiere will reportedly pay more than $200 million per season for the Bundesliga rights while Unity Media gets a 17% stake in Premiere, which Arena received in February as part of the satellite distribution agreement.

As for Leo Kirch, the former media tycoon who once owned ProSiebenSat 1 and Premiere but lost them in the collapse of this media empire in 2002, it may turn out to be a summer of much content.

Seeking to clear his name of responsibility for the biggest bankruptcy in post-war Germany, Kirch looks likely to win a substantial sum in damages from Deutsche Bank, which he is suing for $2.1 billion in damages.

Last year, Germany’s highest court ruled that Deutsche Bank and its former topper Rolf Breuer were partially responsible for the Kirch insolvency and liable for damages.

At 80, Kirch is unlikely to get back into the TV game if he is awarded damages. Sources familiar with the case say defeating Deutsche Bank is more a matter of principle than money for the former tycoon.

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