Fallen German media mogul Leo Kirch dead at 84

14th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

German former media mogul Leo Kirch died on Thursday at the age of 84, closing the book on the spectacular rise and fall of a man who helped create commercial German television.

"He died this morning in Munich," southern Germany, a spokesman told AFP, indicating that the long-time diabetes sufferer had simply died of old age.

The spokesman declined to give details on the passing of Kirch, a feared media mogul who built a vast empire before declaring a thunderous bankruptcy in April 2002.

Since then, Kirch kept dreaming of rebuilding his media group and was quoted as saying: "You can fall seven times, as long as you get up an eighth time."

Starting from scratch in the mid 1950s, Kirch launched his group at the age of 29 with a loan from family members by acquiring the German rights to the film "La Strada," a masterpiece by Italian film-maker Federico Fellini.

By the end of 1959, Kirch owned the German rights to around 400 US films he had bought from the major studios United Artists and Warner Brothers.

Tens of thousands of films and television programmes are now stocked in a climate-controlled safe near Munich.

The KirchMedia group grew to include TV broadcaster ProSiebenSat1 and pay channel Premiere, but Kirch was finally overwhelmed by massive debts and his empire crumbled in April 2002.

Kirch, who had controlled broadcast rights to Bundesliga football matches, two World Cups and Formula 1 auto races, also held at one point 40 percent of the media group Axel Springer, which publishes Germany's popular daily Bild.

He tried to stage a comeback in 2007 by negotiating a three-billion-euro ($4.3 billion) deal to buy the Bundesliga rights again but was rejected by the national competition watchdog authority.

Up to the end, Kirch cut a figure as an old-fashioned wheeler-dealer, with slicked back hair and piercing eyes, a throwback to the movie star looks of his youth.

Kirch was also the modest son of a Bavarian tinsmith and winemaker, and a devout Catholic who did not seek to mingle constantly with the glittering world of modern media.

A friend of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, he was also well-connected with conservative Bavarian politicians.

Kohl hailed him as a "great man and a great German".

"He was a daring businessman who set standards unmatched to this day," he wrote in a tribute to be published in Bild Friday.

"He, a vintner's son from Franconia, saw the future before anyone else had even imagined it."

"Leo Kirch lastingly shaped the German film and television landscape as an outstanding media entrepreneur and visionary," said German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann in a statement.

"He was among the founding fathers of commercial television in Germany."

Friends described him as a courteous lover of the arts, while critics saw a dark, calculating and irrational man.

"The accomplishments and iron discipline of Leo Kirch fills us all, friends and foes alike, with respect," Bavarian regional premier Horst Seehofer said.

The German union of private radios and television stations VPRT said it "mourned the father of private German television".

"Without the enterprising spirit, the flair and the courage of Leo Kirch, the successful launch of commercial German television in 1984 and its development would not have been possible," VPRT president Juergen Doetz said.

He called Kirch "one of our nation's great entrepreneurs".

But following his bankruptcy, Kirch became a staunch opponent of Deutsche Bank, which he accused of having been responsible for his downfall.

Kirch sued the biggest private German bank, claiming 3.5 billion euros in damages and interest.

He is survived by his wife Ruth, whom he married in 1956, and their son Thomas, whom Kirch did not groom to take over smaller businesses he controlled to the end.

The amount of the family's fortune was unknown but in 2009, Kirch was no longer one of the 300 richest Germans according to a list compiled by the weekly Manager Magazin.

© 2011 AFP

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