Liberty to make ‘opportunistic’ moves for EU free-to-air channels

Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries

Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries

Liberty Global CEO Mike Fries has said that the company will be “opportunistic” about buying more free-to-air TV channels in Europe.

Speaking at Citi’s Internet, Media and Telecommunications Conference in Las Vegas, Fries identified free-to-air channels as an attractive asset in Europe when it comes to content ownership, in comments that could reignite past speculation about Liberty’s interest in ITV – the UK broadcaster it owns a minority stake in.

Fries said that free broadcasters in Europe still dominate 70-80% of viewership, claiming: “They’re the only real production engine in those countries, they have all the eyeballs, they have great reach.”

He added that previous deals for TV3 in Ireland and De Vijver in Belgium – which operates the Vier, Vijf channels – has “worked out very well for us”.

“It may be that free-to-air broadcasters are a more likely candidate for vertical integration with distributers like us than a studio or buying a bunch of channels, but we’re being cautious about it,” said Fries.

He claimed that while Liberty is still “taking baby steps” it was also doing “smart transactions that we think get us in the game where we need to be in the game.”

“I don’t want to overstate it by saying that five years out we’ll be sitting here and we will be owning free-to-air everywhere; we won’t. But in certain markets they can add reach, they can add great marketing capability, they give you access to content that you’re not otherwise buying because they’re acquiring it or building it or growing it or making it. They give you an advertising hedge if you want it, so from that point of view we’re going to be opportunistic about it.”

In mid-2015 Liberty Global upped its stake in ITV to 9.9% but ruled out making an offer to acquire the UK broadcaster. Earlier the same year, CFO Charlie Bracken described ITV as “awfully pricey” as an outright acquisition target, adding: “we’re not going to invest billions of dollars in content – that’s not our game.”

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