Liberty Media’s Might

Cable takeover in Germany has local industry anxious, but doc providers will be least affected.
July 12, 2001

The focus of Denver-based Liberty Media’s six newly acquired cable systems (from Deutsche Telekom AG) has not yet been hashed out, but Liberty’s interest in several local and foreign commercial broadcasters and content providers has dissociated local channels and distributors biting their nails.

German broadcasters fear that Liberty will include its foreign and local affiliate channels in its cable packages over non-affiliated German channels, since state regulations require only one third of cable channels be reserved for German broadcasters. According to Thomas Frickel of AG Dok (the German Doc Filmmakers’ Association) Liberty’s acquisition will have its greatest impact on local commercial broadcasters. ‘Private TV stations in Germany are shouting that there is going to be a new monopoly and they fear they will have to pay a lot to remain on cable, since terrestrial broadcast frequencies are largely dominated by public TV.’

Fred Burcksen, vice president of distribution and investments at ZDF Enterprises says ZDF is in the process of preparing its game plan to woo the new cable owner. Potential strategies include the creation of extensive TV movie video-on-demand packages; a new ZDF Gold Channel consisting of content from ZDF’s series catalog; and, a potential joint venture with the History Channel in the U.S. that will see the creation of a German version, Historia. But, he maintains, ‘The interesting political question being discussed in Germany is why we have sold our cable system. What’s next? Shall we sell the highways?’

Doc content providers are not as nervous, since their primary outlet is public television. Says Frickel, ‘As documentary filmmakers, we mostly provide content for public television stations, and since public television is bound by a must-carry mandate, we will not be in much danger. The bigger problem is for private stations because they are not must-carry, so Liberty and others can say ‘how much money will you give us to remain in cable?” On a more reassuring note for domestic producers he adds, ‘Foreign content has been less successful in Germany the last few years, because people like to watch stories that are told in their region, or at least in their country.’

It has been anticipated that Liberty’s German takeover is part of John Malone’s European consolidation strategy since Liberty has also upped its interest in Europe’s biggest cable network operator UPC, through a complex deal with UPC’s parent company UnitedGlobalCom (UGC) that gives Malone 81% of UGC voting rights. Liberty is expected to integrate its new German assets with those of UPC.

For more details on the Liberty/DT deal itself, see RSPlus June 28, 2001

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