Axel Springer, the German newspaper publisher, was on Tuesday night scrambling to save its planned takeover of ProSiebenSat.1, the country’s second-largest private broadcaster, after the first of two public watchdogs blocked the move.
A media committee of Germany’s states turned down the planned €4.2bn ($5bn) deal, arguing that the combination of Bild, the top-selling tabloid, and four TV channels would give Springer sway over public opinion.
The controversial bid looks set to usher in a new era of foreign media involvement in the country – either through concessions by Springer or a renewed auction for ProSieben. The states’ media committee lamented that Springer had refused to offer real concessions such as creating an independent programming council or selling one of ProSieben’s two highly popular mainstream TV channels, Pro7 and Sat1.
But people close to the company said Springer had overcome earlier reluctance and was now talking to a foreign rival – other than France’s TF1 and Luxembourg’s SBS, mooted in past days – about such a move.
Springer refused to comment but pointed out that the media committee ruling could be overturned if three-quarters of state governments rejected it. “New concessions” were possible in order to secure such a reversal, Springer said.
The prospect of a foreign media company entering Germany has haunted politicians since Haim Saban, the US investor, bought ProSieben from the bankrupt Kirch media empire in 2002.
Should Springer not get the green light to take over a rump ProSieben, Mr Saban, too, would have to seek buyers abroad as the only other potential German bidder, the media giant Bertelsmann, would face a European Union veto. The federal cartel office, the other public watchdog involved, has given Mathias Döpfner, Springer’s chief executive, until tomorrow to reply to objections.
Ulf Böge, head of the cartel office, has rejected the bid because he fears Springer could dominate the print and TV advertising markets in Germany. He said concessions offered so far failed to address this concern.
Mr Döpfner had offered to create an advisory council for programming at ProSieben and to sell the company’s TV-listings magazines as well as some printing joint ventures with Bertelsmann. But he refused to cede control over either Bild or the TV channels. The cartel office said it would present its final ruling by January 20. Should last-minute concessions sway Mr Böge, Mr Döpfner would have a strong hand when lobbying state governments to revoke yesterday’s veto.
Should Mr Böge reject the bid, Springer could appeal against this decision, but would face a Herculean task in persuading Germany’s political elite at federal and state level.