Leo Kirch: Entrepreneur who built up one of Europe's largest media empires only to see it fall apart

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The Independent Online

From nothing Leo Kirch built up one of the largest film and television companies in Europe, employing nearly 10,000 people. Inevitably, he was compared to Rupert Murdoch and Silvio Berlusconi.

He had launched himself on the road to business success and wealth in 1955, borrowing money from his wife's family to buy the German rights to the Spanish film Marcelino Pan Y Vino [Marcelino Bread And Wine] and to Federico Fellini's 1954 masterpiece, La Strada [The Road]. However, in 2002, his business empire collapsed in the largest insolvency in Germany's postwar history.

Leo Kirch was born in the Catholic village of Volkach, Bavaria, but shortly afterwards the family moved to nearby Würzburg, which was heavily bombed in 1945. His father, Robert, was a tinsmith who was also, with his wife, Katharina, a wine grower.

After military service towards the end of the war, Kirch completed his matriculation and enrolled at Nuremberg University. To finance himself he became involved in the black market and was expelled for handling stolen goods. He completed his studies in marketing, management and mathematics at Munich University.

It was during these early postwar years, when cinema-going had reached a peak, that he saw the business advantages of bringing foreign films to the German market. Healso realised mass television viewing was not far off. In 1955 he foundedSirius-Film und Einkauf GmbHand travelled in his Volkswagen, first to Barcelona and then to Rome.He made contact with Fellini, whohad just completed La Strada, which featured Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina and Richard Basehart. It appealed to many German women who, like Masina's character, were struggling to assert themselves in the post-war world.

Kirch's gamble paid off and he kept re-investing the profits, eventually owning the biggest film rental library outside the US. The public television service, which started in 1952, relied on this library for many of the films, dramas and American shows it broadcast. By the end of 1959, Kirch possessed the German rights to around 400 United Artists and Warner Brothers movies. Not content, he branched out into sports television and, at his height, controlled broadcast rights to Bundesliga football matches, two World Cups and Formula 1 races. He also held 40 per cent of the Axel Springer media group, which publishes Germany's mass circulation daily paper, Bild.

Kirch was friendly with politicians like Franz-Josef Strauss, for many years the leading Bavarian politician, and with Helmut Kohl; he was a witness at Kohl's second marriage in 2008. When Kohl was elected Chancellor in October 1982, he resolved to end the public authority monopoly in television. This change was introduced in 1983 – and Kirch was ready. He was one of the founders of the first channel financed by advertising, Sat 1. The channel became part of Germany's biggest TV broadcaster after merging with ProSieben Medias AG in 2000 to become ProSiebenSat.1 Media AG (PSM).

His ambitious plan to develop a digital pay channel, concocted with the Bertelsmann Group (owner of the cable and satellite station RTL), fell through in 1990 because of the opposition of the European Commission and the German Cartel Office. But in 1996, Kirch began heavily investing in a new venture, pay TV. In four years he put more than $3bn into developing Premiere World. The effort did not bring the expected returns, however. German viewers, who already had a wide choice of channels, many free, were not inclined to pay for what Premiere World had to offer. Attempts to restrict some sports competitions to pay TV, including parts of the football World Cup, failed to entice enough viewers.

During the 1999, it was revealed that Kirch had donated 6m marks to the right-of-centre Christian Democrats during Helmut Kohl's tenure as chancellor. Then in spring 2002, his operation collapsed into insolvency. Kirch blamed the former Deutsche Bank boss, Rolf Breuer, who in a television interview had appeared to raise doubts about Kirch's creditworthiness. "Erschossen hat mich der Rolf," [Rolf has shot me], he cried.

Kirch attempted a comeback in 2007 when he negotiated a 3bneuro, five-year contract to buy the Bundesliga rights once again. However, the deal was rejected by theFederal competition authority. Kirch filed dozens of lawsuits against Deutsche Bank and Breuer, claiming 3.5bn euros in damages and interest; several of the cases are still ongoing in the courts.

Sometimes, especially with his open-necked shirt and glasses, Kirch looked like your typical next-door neighbour; at other times he could look rather sinister. His last public appearance was in March in a courtroom. He cut a sad figure, nearly blind and sitting in a wheelchair, but he was determined to speak for himself.

Leo Kirch, media entrepreneur: born, Volkach, Bavaria 21 October 1926; married 1956 Ruth (one son); died Munich 14 July 2011.

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