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Former German media mogul Leo Kirch dies

Leo Kirch, a German media mogul whose television-based empire unraveled in a spectacular bankruptcy nearly a decade ago, died Thursday. He was 84.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Leo Kirch, a German media mogul whose television-based empire unraveled in a spectacular bankruptcy nearly a decade ago, died Thursday. He was 84.

Kirch, a towering business figure in postwar West Germany, was a friend of longtime German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and had business ties with News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch and Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi.

Kirch died in Munich. A brief statement from his family said he died peacefully, but gave no further details. He had long suffered from severe diabetes.

The reclusive Bavarian winegrower's son built a media group that at its height included a thriving film rights trading business, stakes in publisher Axel Springer and in Germany's second-biggest TV broadcaster ProSiebenSat.1, TV rights for the football World Cup and a majority stake in Formula One motor racing.

Kirch's media empire crumbled in 2002 under some €6.5 billion ($9.3 billion) in debt following a money-losing venture into pay television and acquisitions that didn't pay off.

Kirch launched himself on the road to success in 1956, borrowing money from his wife's family to buy the German rights to Federico Fellini's film "La Strada."

The film was a hit, and Kirch kept buying until he had the largest film library outside the United States, including the Buster Keaton library, Laurel and Hardy, and the Howard Hughes/RKO library with "King Kong" and "Citizen Kane."

Selling Hollywood to German state television made Kirch rich. And when Kohl ushered in private television in the 1980s, Kirch moved to assemble television properties.

Kohl and his wife, Maike, said in a joint statement that "Leo Kirch was a great man, a great German," who "looked into the future before others even dreamed of it." They said that they had "lost a true friend."

"The lifetime achievements and self-discipline of Leo Kirch fill us all, friends and critics, with respect," Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer said. "He was a businessman with vision and the courage to take risks. That's how he turned from a film trader into the engine of private broadcasting in Germany."

Kirch's slide into bankruptcy stunned Germany a decade ago.

His group was hurt by big losses at pay-TV broadcaster Premiere, which was burning up cash fast while his successful businesses were leveraged to buy the rights to Formula One.

Pay TV has been a difficult proposition in Germany, where households typically receive dozens of free channels.

The former Premiere — renamed Sky Deutschland in 2009 and now 49.9 percent-owned by Murdoch's News Corp. — is still in the red, though it is narrowing its losses.

Kirch's collapse fueled speculation at the time that foreign media moguls such as Murdoch and Berlusconi, whose companies were already minority shareholders in his businesses, might take over more Kirch assets and shake up Germany's media landscape.

In a rare interview shortly before his business collapsed in 2002, Kirch suggested that Murdoch was hoping to snap up parts of the group if it failed to secure new financing.

"Murdoch is a shark. Sharks have sharp teeth," he was quoted as telling the weekly Der Spiegel. "I can't be angry with Rupert, even if he wants to eat me. That's the way he is."

It didn't turn out that way. ProSiebenSat.1 went to a consortium led by U.S. tycoon Haim Saban, and Murdoch only returned to Premiere in 2008.

Instead, over the following years, Kirch turned his ire on Rolf Breuer, the then-CEO of Deutsche Bank.

Kirch accused Breuer of undermining his group's creditworthiness and contributing to its eventual bankruptcy in a February 2002 television interview by implying that banks would not lend it any more money — launching suits that are still making their way through German courts. The bank rejected his claims.

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