Exec to grow TBS' global portfolio; RTL taps two as successors

Turner Broadcasting System is poised to turbo-charge its growth overseas now that it has recruited Gerhard Zeiler, one of Europe’s most prominent media execs, to lead its international wing.

Zeiler will segue to the post of TBS Intl. prexy in April, after spending the past nine years as head of Bertelsmann’s Euro broadcast giant RTL Group. The news unveiled Tuesday surprised TV biz observers on two continents and was seen as a coup for TBS chairman and CEO Phil Kent.

Based in London, Zeiler will oversee a staff of 3,800, managing all of Turner’s operations outside of the U.S., including CNN’s international offshoots and TBS-derived licensing and merchandising activity. At present, Turner operates more than 130 channels in more than 30 languages in 200 countries.

Kent told Variety that he set out last year to recruit a strong leader for TBS Intl., which ranks as Turner’s fastest-growing unit. It delivered about $2 billion in revenue last year, or about 20% of TBS total revenue. Kent said he sees that number growing to 25% in the not-so-distant future.

“My only objective was to get the best possible leader for this group of high-performing people that we have (in international),” Kent said. “As soon as I had a private meeting with Gerhard I got the sense that I’d gotten to him a point in his life when he was open to a very different kind of challenge. This is a guy who has performed fantastically at RTL. I laid out the challenges that we face at Turner and from his point of view those were very different and very interesting to him.”

Zeiler’s mandate will include expanding Turner’s scale and market share in key territories in Europe and Asia. At present, the only market where Turner has series scale, with multiple channels enjoying a dominant audience share, is Latin America, Kent said. That means there’s tremendous upside for a seasoned exec like Zeiler to boost operations through a combination of organic growth and acquisitions, he added.

Zeiler was not available for comment on Tuesday. In a statement he called the move to Turner “an opportunity to help grow some of the most valuable media brands in the world and develop new businesses alongside people I admire.”

In running TBS Intl., Zeiler takes the reins from Louise Sams, who had been prexy of TBS Intl. as well as general counsel to all of TBS for the past eight years. As Kent surveyed the growth in international last summer, he realized that it was time to bring in a dedicated exec for TBS Intl., particularly at a time when dramatic changes in business fundamentals have made Sams’ job as general counsel infinitely more complicated.

“With all the things that are changing in media right now, being general counsel is a full-time job,” Kent said. “It was just the logical thing to do.”

Zeiler, who joined RTL in 1998, will exit after company’s annual meeting on April 18. RTL has tapped two execs as his successors: Guillaume de Posch and Anke Schaeferkordt, who will become co-CEOs.

Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Rabe praised Zeiler’s track record at the pan-European broadcaster.

“Under his leadership, the group’s revenues, (earnings) and return on sales showed an exemplary development, and the company is strategically and powerfully positioned for continued growth,” he said.

RTL chief operating officer de Posch will take over responsibility for the firm’s broadcasting operations outside Germany and the company’s production business.

Schaferkordt will continue to manage the German TV business in addition to her new role.

RTL owns approximately 45 television and 31 radio stations in 11 countries. It also produces approximately 9,500 hours of programming a year.

Zeiler, an Austrian who has been RTL’s chief executive since 2003, began his career as a journalist, becoming a spokesman for the Austrian government before switching to broadcasting.

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