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Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 23:36 GMT
Kirch holds breath as talks break up
Rupert Murdoch and Leo Kirch
Rupert Murdoch (left) is a leading shareholder in Leo Kirch's media empire
Crisis-hit German media empire Kirch Gruppe will have to wait till after the long Easter weekend to see if it can survive its devastating cash crunch and a a 6.5bn euro ($5.8bn; 4bn) debt mountain.

The immense loans were amassed in the 1990s, as Kirch bought up sporting and film rights to pipe exclusive content to his TV channels.

The company's talks with creditors and investors about how to raise the 800m euros it needs to stop pay-TV movie channel Premiere from going under broke up on Thursday with no result.

Here reports diverge. According to the Reuters, news agency the meeting will reconvene on Tuesday, Friday and Monday being public holidays in Germany. Bloomberg, on the other hand, says no date has been set for continued talks.

One small ray of light came with news that the immediate, short-term future could be secured with a bridging loan of just 150m euros, compared with earlier estimates of a 230m euro loan.

"Insolvency is not a matter of the next 24 hours," a source told Reuters news agency.

The Berlusconi Connection

But in any case, Kirch remains in deep trouble. Its banks want Kirch investors - which include Rupert Murdoch's News Corp and Mediaset, the media group owned by Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi - to help shoulder some of the 800m euro burden.

Both Fininvest, Mediaset's parent company, and News Corp said they still believe a deal can be worked out.

But after three months of talks, such sentiments carry little weight, and Fininvest, which wields unprecedented dominance over the Italian media landscape, has already said further direct investment is not on the cards.

In an attempt to head off German worries about the Berlusconi connection - one senior figure in the ruling SPD party said the prospect of Mr Berlusconi gaining significant influence in Germany was "monstrous" - it has also stressed that all it wants to do is protect its investment.

Drowning in red ink

Things would be bad enough were the 800m bridging loan for Premiere the only problem.

But Kirch also needs more than 1bn euros to pay off loans in April - and on top of that, News Corp has activated the clause in its deal which compels Kirch to buy it out, which will cost more than 3bn euros.

It looks increasingly likely that Leo Kirch, the media magnate who founded the company and still owns 73% of it, will have to relinquish control if his empire is to survive at all.

Even on a best-case secenario, any real rescue could leave as much as 60% of the group in banks' and investors' hands.

Brinkmanship?

Mediaset has till now been thought to have been behind a plan to inject 800m into Kirch in return for taking control of the core KirchMedia division, which owns Germany's largest commercial broadcaster and rights to Hollywood films and World Cup football.

Other investors involved include Rupert Murdoch's New Corp.

Observers have questioned whether Mediaset's latest statement is part of a brinkmanship strategy aimed at forcing Kirch Gruppe's founder, Leo Kirch, to accept the deal.

"They are playing poker," the Reuters source said.

See also:

27 Mar 02 | Business
Berlusconi firm 'abandons' Kirch
26 Mar 02 | Business
Kirch empire nears break-up
20 Mar 02 | Europe
German media giant sheds jobs
08 Mar 02 | Business
Kirch denies ProSieben sale rumours
24 Feb 02 | Business
Leo Kirch: 'Murdoch is a shark'
22 Feb 02 | Business
KirchGruppe merger falls apart
21 Feb 02 | Business
Kirch 'open' to offers for F1
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