Berlin — Former German media mogul Leo Kirch, who controlled a vast media empire only to lose it all in the biggest bankruptcy in postwar history, died Thursday in Munich. He was 84, had suffered from diabetes and was almost blind.
At his height, the Kirch Group was Germany’s second most powerful media concern after Bertelsmann. He built upon a film library of more than 10,000 titles, 40,000 hours of television series and ownership of TV stations Sat.1, ProSieben, N24, DSF and the feevee Premiere, now Sky Deutschland. He spent billions securing rights to broadcast national and World Cup soccer, later making a big move into Formula One.
Kirch began his first company in 1955, intending to purchase film rights to sell to German pubcasters ZDF and ARD. His first success came with Fellini’s “La strada,” bought with money borrowed from his wife’s family. Seeing the growing demand for entertainment programming, he traveled to Hollywood to license films such as “Lawrence of Arabia” for TV. For years he was the main conduit for Hollywood product in Germany — leading to accusations of monopoly — and finally went into production.
Kirch grew to control a media empire consisting of multiple firms involved in production, distribution, licensing, dubbing, homevideo, merchandising and ultimately broadcasting. When then-chancellor Helmut Kohl deregulated German TV in the ’80s, he was in on the ground floor of commercial television, helping to found Sat.1. His Kirch Group also acquired a stake in the Axel Springer publishing empire.
Kirch’s empire was squeezed by the rising cost of dealing with Hollywood, coupled with mega-prices for the advance purchase of rights for the 2002 and 2006 World Cup soccer games and a e1.5 billion payout for rights to Formula One. The loss was compounded by supporting the less-than-successful pay TV station Premiere. He blamed the Premiere losses partially on his partnership in the deal with Rupert Murdoch, whom he called a “shark.”
In 2002 the combined weight of the $5.7 billion debt dragged KirchMedia into monumental insolvency and breakup. A resulting suit by Kirch against Deutsche Bank ended in the resignation of one of the bank’s chief officers.
Kirch left the scene, though he did maintain a significant stake in Constantin Medien in Munich. He made a brief return in 2007 in a failed attempt to speculate in TV rights to the German Soccer League.
Survivors include his wife, Ruth, and a son.
He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and a son, Thomas.