The king of the great outdoors

Profile: Clear Channel;

CLEAR CHANNEL Communications, one of America's richest and fastest- growing media empires, is ready to lasso Europe.

Its purchase of Britain's More Group, expected to be completed next month, provides the Texan broadcaster with Europe's second-biggest outdoor advertiser and a respected local management team. With billions of dollars to spend, Clear Channel could reshape European outdoor and broadcast media.

"When you get the larger, better-capitalised players coming into the market, it acts as a catalyst for change," said Paul Richards, a media analyst at Panmure Gordon. "The smaller and medium-sized players are either predators or prey - they either sell out to the big Americans or try to go head-to-head with them and probably lose."

Clear Channel has already proved itself the most successful predator in the rough and tumble US media world. A loosening of America's broadcasting ownership laws allowed it to gobble its way from 16 radio stations to 184 radio and 18 TV stations in less than a decade.

The best example of its appetite for opportunity was its swift takeover of the billboard industry once it saw billboards capturing the same audience as radio - car drivers. Within 18 months the company had spent $2.7bn (pounds 1.6bn) buying two of the US's largest billboard companies. Its success in winning More, which builds billboards, bus shelters and other outdoor advertising structures in 22 countries, makes it the world's biggest outdoor advertiser.

All the while, Clear Channel's stock has risen faster than Microsoft's, making it the darling of Wall Street and giving it little reason to slow its acquisition pace. "They have a tremendous war chest," said William Meyers, an analyst at BancAmerica Robertson Stephens, who estimates that Clear Channel could take on at least $1.5bn in debt for acquisitions. "Given their stock performance they could readily tap the markets if they needed more currency."

Mr Meyers and other analysts expect Clear Channel to target radio stations in the same markets where More Group already owns billboards and other outdoor advertising. The fact that More's chief executive, Roger Parry, is already involved in radio as a board member of Golden Rose Communications, owner of the London station Jazz FM, gives Clear Channel a head- start in the UK market.

Combining radio and billboards has been a huge success for the company in the US, enabling it to offer local advertisers a choice of media and to use vacant billboard space to promote its radio stations.

An added benefit is that radio and outdoor advertising in the US have proved less vulnerable to economic fluctuations than other media, suffering only one year of revenue decline in the last 30 years, said Chris Ensley, a broadcast analyst at Salomon Smith Barney in New York. "I think they would look to implement the same strategy in Europe," he said. "They love the cross-selling and cross-promotional opportunities of owning in the same market."

Varying European regulations will make buying radio stations tricky, however. Some countries, like Britain, prohibit foreign companies from taking full ownership of broadcast stations, and most set limits on how many media one company can own in a market. Clear Channel has got round similar limits in places like New Zealand and China by taking minority or joint stakes in radio companies.

Mark Mays, Clear Channel's 34-year-old president and son of founder Lowry Mays, said the company "would be interested" in pursuing a similar mixed- media strategy in Europe, but noted the regulatory difficulties. For now, he said, the company will stick to outdoor advertising. "At this point we're really focusing on the outdoor sector rather than trying to expand the broadcasting rapidly."

The $17bn global outdoor advertising market is growing fast as marketers see the advantage of targeting the captive car-driving population. Clear Channel will build on its leading position to offer global contracts to multinational advertisers, said Gordon Hodge, a media analyst at NationsBanc Montgomery Securities in San Francisco. "They'll be able to deliver one- stop shopping in outdoor advertising to major brands. That could be pretty powerful."

Mr Mays, a former investment banker, said he wants Mr Parry to continue running More's already successful business, albeit with a lot more money behind it. "I think they'll look at acquisitions and expanding their product line," he said. "They can grow through existing business rather than just acquisitions."

This promises trouble for Decaux of France, Europe's largest outdoor advertising company, which tried to top Clear Channel's pounds 475m bid for More but failed due to UK monopoly concerns.

Jean-Francois Decaux, chief executive of the family-owned business, warned during the battle that Clear Channel's entry posed a danger to European media companies which don't have the size or money to compete with a company that is capitalised at $12bn.

Paul Richards at Panmure Gordon said European companies will be forced to accept the new predator-or-prey reality.

"There's nothing to stop them from trying to buy up continental Europe," he said. "If Decaux could spend pounds 500m on More, they could use it in continental Europe."

Copyright IOS & Bloomberg.

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