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Media’s duo Dutch treat

Van Thillo plans new channel, de Mol bows p'gramming block

AMSTERDAM — What do maverick Belgian media player Christian Van Thillo and Dutch billionaire media mogul John de Mol have in common?

Both have their sights set on the Dutch TV landscape and enough coin to place them at the center of major changes there over the next few years.

Van Thillo is CEO of the three-channel Belgian commercial net VTM and Flemish media empire De Pers Groep. He is one of the prime movers behind plans to launch a new commercial channel in Holland together with the country’s biggest pubcaster, TROS, and possibly AVRO, if they bail out of the state system.

Labeled the “Antwerp glamour boy” by the Belgian press, Van Thillo, like de Mol, puts his ambition on the line.

In 15 years, the 42-year-old law school graduate and holder of an MBA from Duke U. in North Carolina has taken his banking family’s print holding and turned it into a major and profitable media group.

He also has spun an 11% interest in Flemish commercial channel VTM into a 50% share, the biggest stake allowed by Flemish law. Media group Roularta is a silent partner in VTM with a 50% stake itself.

Revs in De Per Groep over the last couple of years have been in the high double digits — last year they rose 17% — with profits also in the double digits. VTM is doing similarly well.

Why the Netherlands? “Belgium is simply not big enough anymore, and Holland is the next logical step,” Van Thillo tells Variety.

But the Dutch TV landscape is complicated: Some 20-odd pubcasters share time on three channels and operate on the German model, whereby they raise funds from advertising to supplement their government funding.

Van Thillo’s Dutch TV ambition was fired up after the government mulled making the pubcasters advertising-free and also mooted plans to privatize one or two of the three channels.

This would free up ad pie for new contenders, including Van Thillo’s enterprise, should it be launched, and de Mol’s venture.

De Mol will realize longtime ambitions of being a broadcaster when his yet-to-be-named nightly 6-11 p.m. programming block of sport and family entertainment kicks off in August on MTV Networks’ subsid Nickelodeon.

Van Thillo has nowhere near the billion-dollar coffers of de Mol, who made a fortune selling reality giant Endemol, which he co-founded, to Spain’s Telefonica. He threw a wad of cash, estimated at $6.6 million to $8.6 million, at Dutch sports rights to pump up the profile on his new enterprise.

Van Thillo, however, tops de Mol’s experience in media spread.

Among De Pers Groep’s holdings are the three VTM channels, Antwerp’s regional channel ATV, a radio station, an interactive media company, four newspapers and 14 mags. He is also a member of the supervisory board of media giant Bertelsmann.

Van Thillo says he will only bow a new channel in Holland if at least one Dutch public channel is privatized.

“We aren’t suicidal,” he adds. “We aren’t going into Holland unless we know we will make a profit.”

The government’s decisions on the pubcasters plus TROS and AVRO’s plans for their venture could come early next year some analysts believe.

In the meantime, Van Thillo concedes de Mol “would certainly be a tough contender” if they ever became rivals in the same market.

How about a tough partner? “John and I talk every once in a while about our media ideas, but so far he’s doing his thing and I’m doing mine.”

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