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Premiere looks to new beginning

CEO Michael Boernicke offers different model

BERLIN — Pay TV platform Premiere looks set to embark on an era of greater diplomacy following the departure of chief exec Georg Kofler.

The colorful and cocky topper, whose media savvy confidence endeared him to investors while irking his rivals, announced last week that he was leaving Germany’s sole paybox at the end of the month.

For Premiere’s new CEO, Michael Boernicke, it’ll be a hard act to follow.

Kofler’s surprise exit caught Germany’s media sector by surprise and even triggered a 3.7% drop in Premiere’s share price, but local market watchers reckon a more down- to-earth topper would suit Premiere.

Much more low-key than the flashy Kofler, Boernicke is expected to maintain the same course charted by his predecessor, but he’s also likely to be less polarizing — if he remains at the helm.

Kofler’s exit has fueled speculation of an impending takeover of Premiere. German papers are abuzz with rumors that Gaul’s Vivendi or Rupert Murdoch’s British satcaster BSkyB may want the 17% stake in Premiere held by German cabler Unitymedia — or that Unitymedia itself may seek a majority share in Premiere, more than 56% of which is publicly listed.

Boernicke has been quick to deny that any big players are about pounce.

“I want to move Premiere forward, not sell it,” he says, adding that the platform “has a promising future as an independent company.”

The chief exec designate is looking to increase the company’s profit margin of 10% to an ambitious 25% to 30% by 2010. With the recent reacquisition of top league Bundesliga soccer through 2009, Premiere is hoping to attract an extra 200,000 subscribers by the end of the month — it already has some 3.47 million customers.

The paybox has recently invested in initiatives for growth such as satellite service Premiere Star, set to launch in September, and HDTV channels.

But Bundesliga soccer is Premiere’s prime asset and Boernicke is dead set on keeping it. He has made it clear that he’s looking for long-term co-operation with the German Football League (DFL) and will do everything he can to retain the rights for the 2009-2010 season.

Kofler made headlines with his loud and belligerent attacks on pubcasters ARD and ZDF over sports rights and his hardnosed haggling alienated DFL officials and led to Premiere losing the Bundesliga in 2005 to upstart pay TV rival Arena — a disastrous loss that gutted the company’s share price.

In a recent interview with Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung, Boernicke distanced himself from Kofler’s hard line.

“Kofler wanted to run 100 meters in under 10 seconds. I’m more of a marathon runner and prefer a long-term outlook,” he said. “I want to lead Premiere to more sustainable growth.”

Kofler wanted greater exclusivity from the DFL and demanded that ARD push back its weekend Bundesliga news roundups to 10 p.m. to force soccer-mad locals to subscribe to Premiere for fuller, and earlier, coverage. By doing so, Kofler not only infuriated ARD and DFL officials, but also soccer fans and politicos.

Boernicke is going for a kinder and gentler approach. “I’m not someone who thinks in radical terms. Things are not just black and white; there are also shades of gray.”

The new topper says he’d accept ARD’s right to air its sports show when it wants if another solution can be reached with the DFL, like negotiating different kickoff times for weekend matches. This would give Premiere’s coverage a significant headstart over free-to-air TV rivals while still allowing ARD to air its sports show in the early evening.

For Premiere, greater diplomacy and less intimidation may prove a winning formula.

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