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Liberty's merger hopes dashed in Germany

By PETER WHITE

Published: 3 November, 2011

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We predicted back in March that the path to Liberty Media buying German cable operator Kabel Baden-W├╝rttembergs (Kabel BW) would be far from smooth, and now that the German Cartel office (the Bundeskartellamt ) has intervened, it's a toss-up whether the deal is now dead, or whether Liberty can make enough concessions to the German anti-trust regulator to remove its' worries.

Those concerns are that Liberty will have two of the three major German cable operators, and the richer of two them, and that this will result in no competition between cablecos there, as well as a smaller content market for German produced video.

If they are truly its only objections, Liberty can promise to compete with other cable players outside its footprint with its OTT, can promise to sustain key content relationships and can now also point to the broad range of equipment suppliers it used on the Horizon set top, and how this shows that multiple suppliers can make a difference to cable companies, and the same may be true of content.

However cable in Europe really doesn't compete with cable - hardly at all. In the UK, Spain and France there is only one major cable supplier, and in each case the multiple regional operators all huddled together for economic warmth and ended up as virtually one company. Why should it be any different in Germany? Well because cable dominates so utterly in Germany making up 19.8 million out of 23.5 million pay TV homes whoever dominates cable dominates pay TV. This is not rue elsewhere. Only in Benelux does cable have the same kind of sway and in each of these countries (we are thinking of Netherlands and Belgium) there are only two major cable suppliers. So it might appear that competition is never coming to cable in Germany or anywhere else in Europe except from rival technologies such as Satellite, IPTV or digital Terrestrial. And while there are in excess of 7,200 different TV channels across Europe, it's tough to make a case that TV channels don't have ample opportunities.

If we look at a European level Sky and Liberty Global are neck and neck as the most dominant pay TV providers, and here it may be harder to swallow yet another market ceding dominance to a single European purchaser which will have 19 million pay TV homes to play with out of a 121 million total, compared to 17.6 million from the three Sky franchises - in the UK, Germany and Italy.

Perhaps both of these operators need to come under greater scrutiny from a European wide regulator, rather than let single country regulators take them on using local rationale and legislation. A final say so on this matter will be passed on December 15th, but these two major pay TV operators will continue to represent potential market distortion for some time to come.

For a full analysis of this subject go to www.rethinkresearch.biz/faultine and order this week's Faultline issue.

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