BERLIN — Rupert Murdoch made a surprise return last week to the German TV market, which he fled six years ago when his $1.4 billion investment in pay TV platform Premiere went up in smoke.

Even more surprisingly, Murdoch is back as Premiere’s biggest shareholder after News Corp. picked up a 15% stake in the paybox platform from regional cabler Unitymedia for E287 million ($422.4 million). “We see enormous potential for growth in Germany and believe the time is right to invest in its foremost pay TV business, Premiere,” says Murdoch.

Local observers expect News Corp. to either increase its stake in Premiere in order to take full control or sell to a third party, which, going by recent rumors, includes a growing list of interested buyers, among them France’s Canal Plus and even former owner Leo Kirch.

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Alternatively he could keep Premiere to fill in a blank spot on his corporate map, namely Germany; pass on control to News Corp.’s Blighty satcaster giant BSkyB; or get back into bed with his old partner, Kirch.

The latter scenario may be stretching it considering that Murdoch was hit hard in 2002 when Kirch’s media empire collapsed under a $6 billion mountain of debt — much of it generated by Premiere, which had been hemorrhaging some $2 million a day as it struggled to attract subs and contain costs.

Murdoch’s $1.4 billion went poof when BSkyB wrote off the 22% stake it had in Premiere’s insolvent parent KirchPayTV, one of several Kirch companies to go under in 2002 in what became the biggest bankruptcy in postwar Germany.The enigmatic Kirch remains a wildcard in the Premiere equation, however.

Kirch controls the rights to top Bundesliga soccer and Premiere depends on the sport to attract subscribers, now numbering 3.7 million, or about 9% of German TV households.

Underscoring the importance of soccer was the deal struck last year between Premiere and Unitymedia. It gave the cabler the stake in question in return for granting Premiere sub-licensing rights to the Bundesliga after the cabler was forced to shut down its own failed sports pay TV startup, Arena.

Premiere faces a tough market in Germany — the country has close to 40 free-to-air TV channels and some of the highest TV license fees in Europe. But it’s still the only viable pay TV player in the country able to cough up top coin for Bundesliga rights, making Kirch equally dependent on the feevee platform (and thus a possible buyer).

Uncertainty about Premiere obtaining the Bundesliga has shaken investor confidence in the platform in recent months. Company shares reached a 52-week low in November of $14, down more than 50% from a year ago, after Kirch pacted with the German Football League in October to market the Bundesliga rights — a deal that put Premiere’s Bundesliga prospects in question.

While Premiere’s share price is still considerably below the $40 high it reached in early 2005, Murdoch’s acquisition has excited investors.

News Corp. paid $25.76 per share for its stake, well above Premiere’s stock price, which shot up 24% on news of the deal to $23.25. Company shares were trading around $22.30 last week.