Deregulation key to year of multi-media frenzy

Pay-TV in Europe looks ripe for take-off as the giants jockey for advantage, writes Mathew Horsman; By joining forces, broadcasters can develop digital TV without threatening existing businesses
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The Independent Online
The media markets have hardly taken a breather since last year's pounds 17bn mega-merger between Disney and ABC-Capital Cities, and the floodgates look likely to open even wider over the balance of 1996.

And it is not just broadcasters and entertainment companies that will drive the frenzy. Telecommunications, in the US and in Europe, look set to provide ample excitement, confirming that 1996 is to be a year of multimedia upheaval.

A tie-up between Cable & Wireless still looks likely, while Deutsche Telekom is eyeing cable operations in the UK. The Baby Bells are sniffing at other sectors and at each other, with at least one more merger in the industry likely between now and the autumn, according to analysts in New York.

The proximate cause of all the excitement is a wave of deregulation - in the US and the EU particularly. Governments are unshackling broadcasters, telecoms operators, cable companies and publishers alike, allowing a far greater degree of integration to occur.

But more than deregulation is at work. A radical technological revolution is under way, which is helping to break down the old distinctions between broadcasting and telecommunications - between "content" and "carriage". BT is exploring ways of delivering video programming down the phone line, while cable companies are offering telephony and Internet connections to the home.

With the explosion in the number of distribution platforms, the advantages of owning programming rights are becoming more obvious by the day. With the advent of digital terrestrial, digital satellite and cable, there is a growing need for entertainment and information to fill excess capacity.

A look at the top media companies - Time Warner, Sony, News Corporation, Viacom - proves the point. Each has developed an impressive stable of copyright material.

British companies are getting caught up in the excitement. For instance, Pearson, the perennial favourite for demerger, is again in the limelight, as investors bet the company - or a hostile bidder - will look to enhance shareholder value by stripping out the lucrative television production and programming operations and a stellar library.

But there is still some way to go in Europe before the revolution reaches maturity. For a start, multi-channel pay television, well entrenched in the US, is still in an embryonic stage in most European countries.

In fact, the pay-TV market is likely to drive Europe's media markets for the rest of the decade, according to analysts. Natwest Securities estimates growth of 25 per cent a year until the turn of the century, albeit from a small base.

There are an estimated 70 miilion potential pay-TV viewers in Europe, a market that makes BSkyB's 5 million satellite and cable subscribers in the UK look paltry. To develop that business, a pan-European alliance, taking in all but one of the big pay-TV players, is already in place: Rupert Murdoch's 40 per cent-owned BSkyB, Bertelsmann and Canal Plus, the French pay-TV giant.

This week's announcement that Bertelsmann and CLT will combine their TV and radio operations gives the alliance even greater heft. The companies intend to develop digital pay-TV services for Germany, the second-biggest TV market in the world after the US.

Only Germany's Kirch Group remains outside this charmed circle of broadcasters and industry sources are convinced Leo Kirch, chairman of the private company, will have no choice but to drop his own digital standard and join what has become the dominant alliance in Germany.

"He is being coquettish, and may take his time," one senior alliance source said. "But the Bertelsmann-CLT link has clearly shaken him, and he is looking isolated."

The sheer weight of the alliance may appear to be overwhelming to Mr Kirch. Between them, the five companies control as many as 25 satellite transponders - enough to offer perhaps 250 digital channels. Kirch Group has promised only 15 channels for his German digital service.

Moreover, Kirch holds only 25 per cent of Premiere, the pay-TV channel majority controlled by Canal Plus and Bertelsmann. Premiere has the rights to German football, believed by many to be the key driving force of pay- TV in Germany, just as the Premier League has proved to be in the UK. Mr Kirch has still not agreed to allow BSkyB to take a share in Premiere, which the other owners want, but his resolve may be weakening in light of the added pressures from the Bertelsmann-CLT link.

The other great advantage of the alliance is one that regulators may not much like. By joining forces, the broadcasters can develop digital television without threatening their existing businesses.

"The alliance means that the nightmare of two or three competing digital systems is receding," Andrea Kirby, media analyst at Daiwa Securities, says. "The general feeling is that they are better off developing digital jointly, and not having to face competition in their existing markets."

The huge growth in pay-TV in Europe is likely to attract US interest. Given the strict ownership rules in the European Union, no US company will be able to become a broadcaster outright. But programme supply is a wide-open market, and one that will attract the likes of Disney, Time Warner, Viacom and other "content-rich" firms.

The global players

Sony: music recording, film studio, and electronics. Value: $22bn

Time Warner: Turner Film studios, theme parks, books, magazines, cable networks, and television channels (including all-new CNN). Value: $21bn

Disney-ABC: film studio, theme parks, TV network, and publishing. Value: $17bn

Bertelsmann CLT: publishing, electronic media, music recording, film, pay-TV, radio, including stakes in Talk Radio and the new Channel 5 in the UK. Value: $14 bn

Viacom: Video rentals, pay-TV, film studio. Value: $14bn

News Corp: newspapers, magazines, terrestrial and pay TV, film studio, internet services, and 40 per cent of BSkyB. Value: $10bn

TCI: cable and pay-TV programming, including 50 per cent of Flextech, a leading UK pay-TV channel packager. Value: $8bn