July 15, 2024

Leo Kirch, German Media Giant, Dies at 84

A statement by his family did not disclose the cause of his death, but Mr. Kirch had suffered from diabetes for years.

At the height of his success in the late 1990s, Mr. Kirch headed Germany’s second-largest media company, after Bertelsmann. With the backing of German politicians and investors like Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi and a Saudi prince, Mr. Kirch had created a $5 billion empire that included television channels, movie rights and a stake in Formula 1 car racing.

But the empire unraveled when an expensive bet on digital pay television failed to pay off. The Kirch group was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2002, the biggest in Germany since World War II, owing banks and business partners billions of dollars.

After the collapse of his business, Mr. Kirch spent his final years fighting Deutsche Bank and its former chief executive, Rolf Breuer, in court, asserting it was a public comment about the Kirch group’s finances that led to its collapse.

Mr. Kirch, the son of a winemaker from Franconia, was born Oct. 21, 1926, in Volkach, a village in Bavaria. He started his business when he was 29 and bought the broadcasting rights to Federico Fellini’s film “La Strada” with money he borrowed from his in-laws. “La Strada” proved a hit in Germany, and Mr. Kirch was soon traveling to Hollywood to bring movies like ““Lawrence of Arabia” to German audiences. When Germany opened its broadcasting market to competition in the 1980s, Mr. Kirch jumped at the opportunity and helped set up a private television channel, Sat. 1, which is still among the biggest in the country. By 1996, the Kirch group also owned a stake in the publisher of Germany’s best-selling tabloid, Bild Zeitung.

Mr. Kirch’s company employed almost 10,000 people and owned the rights to 63,000 movies and television shows as well as broadcasting rights to sports events including the 2002 soccer World Cup. His empire was one of Germany’s big postwar success stories.

But then Mr. Kirch decided to pour more than $3 billion into the new venture of pay television. He overestimated the appetite for the service from a German audience that already had a wide choice of free television channels. Costs for technology, film rights and financial agreements with his pay television partner, Mr. Murdoch, spiraled, and lenders started to call in loans. At the age of 75, Mr. Kirch was forced to declare his media empire bankrupt with $5.7 billion in debt.

In a rare interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel months before the bankruptcy filing, Mr. Kirch denied he was “a gambler” and said he was not driven by “delusions of grandeur.”

The flawed pay television deal with Mr. Murdoch, he said, was initially extremely lucrative. But, he added, Mr. Murdoch was a “shark” and “sharks have sharp teeth.” He added that he had no grudge against Mr. Murdoch “even if he wanted to eat me.”

As his media empire was unraveling, Mr. Kirch sent a letter of farewell to his staff. In it, he wrote about his vision to create a successful media company, over which he had lost control. “People, not numbers, make companies,” he wrote, before signing the letter with “God bless you.”

Mr. Kirch is survived by his wife, Ruth, and a son, Thomas.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=a007c345cfaec0cffa5b27d54df07894

Speak Your Mind