Company's holding rises to 20%

News Corp. has increased its stake in paybox Premiere to nearly 20%, solidifying expectations that the group is serious about its new German foothold.

Move follows last month’s acquisition of a 14.58% stake in the feevee platform from regional cable group Unity Media, making News Corp. the single biggest shareholder in Premiere.

On Thursday the group said it had increased its stake to 19.9%.

“We’re looking forward to working constructively with Premiere’s management on the growth and future direction of the business,” said James Murdoch, News Corp.’s chairman and chief exec for Europe and Asia.

News Corp.’s European pay TV holdings include a 39% stake in BSkyB, the No. 1 pay TV group in the U.K. with more than 8.8 million subscribers, and its wholly owned Sky Italia, Italy’s leading feevee provider with more than 4 million subs — well ahead of Premiere’s 3.65 million.

News Corp.’s latest grab comes as Premiere readies for a showdown with former owner Leo Kirch over lucrative top league Bundesliga soccer rights.

Germany’s antitrust office is expected to soon weigh in on Kirch’s ambitious plans to produce and sell pre-packaged Bundesliga soccer shows starting in 2009, and the octogenarian is looking to placate the watchdog as well as pay TV platform Premiere with a compromise.

After News Corp.’s initial acquisition in January, Premiere went on the offensive by filing a complaint with the federal cartel office charging that Kirch’s plan to offer bundled Bundesliga programming was not only anticompetitive but a violation of its journalistic integrity.

Kirch’s strategy is a core element of the savvy mogul’s six-year, E3 billion ($4.4 billion) marketing deal with the German Football League (DFL). The soccer show is to be produced by a joint company set up this week by Kirch’s Sirius SportMedia and the DFL.

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