Disney Buys German Channel Das Vierte

Disney will pay an undisclosed amount to buy the free-to-air channel from Russian media executive Dmitri Lesnevsky.

COLOGNE, Germany - Disney is looking to further expand in the German television market with the acquisition - announced today - of German cable channel Das Vierte (The Fourth).

Disney confirmed German media reports that it has signed a deal to acquire the free TV channel from Russian media executive Dmitry Lesnevsky. Das Vierte, which last year had a meager 0.2 percent share of the German audience, used to be owned by NBC Universal.

"The Walt Disney Company has signed an agreement to purchase the German broadcast channel Das Vierte, providing Disney with a number of options to expand its broadcast capabilities in Germany," Disney said in a statement.

Any deal will have to be approved by German media and competition authorities. Disney already has a strong presence in the German TV market, with a 50 percent stake in leading kids channel Super RTL (Bertelsmann's RTL Group holds the remaining 50 percent) and, together with Herbert Kloiber's Tele-Munchen Group, a 31.5 percent stake in free-to-air channel RTL II. Disney also operates pay TV channels the Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD and Disney Cinemagic in Germany.

What has until now been missing in the studio's German TV empire is a free TV channel Disney controls outright. If Disney were to take over Das Vierte, it could relaunch it as a Disney-branded family channel - a move that would put it in direct competition with Super RTL - or use it to launch a German version of sports network ESPN. Any deal would have to be approved by Germany's media watchdogs and competition authorities.

Lesnevsky acquired Das Vierte from NBC Universal back in 2007 with an eye to rebranding and then reselling the money-losing network which has a meager 0.2 percent share of the German television audience. Lesnevsky planned to sell the channel to German group Phoenix Media in 2010 but that deal fell through.

Germany has Europe's largest free TV market and the territory has proved largely recession-resistant, making it especially attractive for outside investors. But Germany's crowded and complex free TV landscape has proved a tough nut to crack for international studios. NBC Universal was unable to turn a profit with Das Vierte. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp bought free-to-air channel TM3 from Herbert Kloiber back in 1999 only to sell it off - at a loss - two years later. Murdoch has since abandoned free TV in Germany, preferring to concentrate on building up News Corp's pay TV operation Sky Deutschland.