Network lands top talk show host Kerner

German web Sat.1 has pulled off a major coup by luring away ZDF’s top talk show host and sports commentator Johannes B. Kerner — the third pubcaster star to jump ship to the ProSiebenSat.1 empire within months.

The move reverses a long-standing trend in Germany where deep-pocketed and prestigious pubcasters ARD and ZDF poach talent from commercial webs once their fledgling careers gather pace.

Kerner’s surprise return to Sat.1 after 12 years at ZDF drew headlines across Germany.

But the multi-tasking Teuton talkmeister — who is as confident interviewing celebrities and soccer stars as he is putting tough questions to politicians — has disclosed few details about his move to Sat.1, the anchor web of Europe’s second-largest TV group.

“The fact is that I was looking for more security for my production team and that issue wasn’t being resolved as well this year as usual,” Kerner said in a rare interview with Der Spiegel news mag, apparently hinting that reports he wanted a five-year deal while ZDF would only offer three are accurate.

“Money wasn’t the issue,” Kerner maintains, even though his wages will reportedly triple to $4 million per year at Sat.1. “ZDF and I agreed to part company in harmony after a long run.”

Others speculate he was fed up with ZDF’s heavy-handed interference with the selection of his talkshow guests and topics.

ZDF brass were unhappy after he threw a guest, a fired ARD newsreader, off his show for ill-chosen remarks about the Nazi era that played to right-wing extremists — and execs disliked the fact that he sold his services to advertisers.

With his contract at ZDF for four latenight talk shows a week and dozens of sports show appearances running through the end of 2009, Kerner has so far refused to utter a single critical word in public about ZDF.

Sat.1, where Kerner made his name hosting soccer program “Ran” and a weekly talkshow from 1992 to 1997, is trumpeting Kerner’s return.

He joins political host Sabine Christiansen and latenight comedian Oliver Pocher, both recently wooed away from ARD by Sat.1.

The web plans to exploit Kerner’s soccer expertise as well as his talkshow format.

Web topper Guido Bolten described Kerner as “one of the most popular and authoritative hosts in Germany. He’ll give us first-class soccer coverage and help boost our journalistic expertise.”

Andreas Bartl, topper of German Free TV at ProSiebenSat.1, added: “It’s an enormous coup for us. It’s an important step for our future expansion.”

German media have had a field day speculating on why Sat.1 is poaching pubcaster stars — particularly as it’s struggling financially. The web posted a $162 million net loss in 2008 on a 5.7% drop in annual revenue to $3.8 billion.

ProSiebenSat.1 is weighed down with more than $5 billion in debt. It is closing its Berlin headquarters and moving to a Munich suburb and has made staff cuts in the past year.

“There are cynics who believe they’re trying to improve the bride’s looks in order to be able to sell her off,” wrote Focus magazine’s Mareile Kurtz.

On the bright side, Sat.1’s overall market share rose by nearly 1% in 2008 to 10.4% — the biggest jump of any major German web. In the 14-49 target group, Sat.1 was still well behind leader RTL (15.7%) and ProSieben (11.8%). But Sat.1’s 10.8% share was in front of ARD (7.5%) and ZDF (7.0%).

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