MEDIA HEADLINER: The RTL chief executive plans to flex his corporate muscles. Didier Bellens has not let his powerful job go to his head

You don't know who Didier Bellens is? Don't worry, you're not the weakest link. Six of the UK's top advertising and media chiefs also had to pass when asked about Bellens this week.

You don't know who Didier Bellens is? Don't worry, you're not the weakest link. Six of the UK's top advertising and media chiefs also had to pass when asked about Bellens this week.

But Anne Robinson would not be impressed. He's the chief executive of RTL, the largest TV and radio broadcast and production group in Europe.

Bellens is likely to be unperturbed by his anonymity - in 20 years of working with the Belgian finance giant GLB and its owner, Albert Frere, he was recognised internally as a business star but he never sought the limelight for himself.

Even now, as he starts to talk to journalists, he makes it clear that it is to promote RTL, not himself. The 45-year-old Belgian deflects personal questions with a laugh, just as he uses humour and jokes to make meetings run smoothly and bond with his multicultural, multilingual management team.

Colleagues describe him as ebullient, but not flamboyant, private rather than shy, and very approachable. He is deeply involved with the strategy of the group, while maintaining a hands-off style of management.

His lack of ego and his ability to encourage others were probably key among the qualities that won him the top job as the chief executive of the pounds 16 billion group formed by the CLT-UFA and Pearson TV merger in July.

As the managing director of GLB since 1992, he oversaw all its media interests and was involved in the merger of GLB's Luxembourg-based CLT broadcast network with UFA, the programme production arm of the German media giant Bertelsmann.

He contributed to the accelerated growth of the combined company and the eventual marriage made in heaven link-up with Pearson TV propelled the group into the global media premier league. It's the only European player there.

Bellens had also demonstrated that he could work with both the Bertelsmann chief executive, Thomas Middelhoff, and Frere. So it was not surprising that he was their choice to run the new RTL Group with Ewald Walgenbach, the chief operating officer, and the director of strategy and content, Richard Eyre, the former ITV chief who left to head Pearson TV.

To put the company into perspective, it has 7,000 people on the payroll, 22 TV channels and 18 radio stations across 11 countries, with 120 million viewers and 25 million listeners every day. It provides 10,000 hours of programming to broadcasters each year, produces original content in 35 countries and sells secondary programme rights in more than 100 countries.

High-profile programmes include Baywatch, Neighbours and The Bill.

In the UK, the immediate effect of the merger has been on Channel 5, with the combined shares of CLT-UFA and Pearson giving RTL 65 per cent of the company. Bellens believes in total ownership, to make the most of the group's broadcast and online opportunities, and has made it clear that he wants United News and Media's 35 per cent holding - but only at a reasonable price.

While saying 'I can live with being a majority shareholder,' he is flexing his corporate muscle with his plans to clean up the so-called 'Channel Filth' and turn it into a strong mainstream contender as CLT did with the M6 channel in France. He has proposed increasing the programme budget from pounds 130 million a year to around pounds 200 million over time and is backing the new Channel 5 chief executive, Dawn Airey, and her team to make the change of direction happen. He has said he is aiming to increase Channel 5's share of the market from 6 to 10 per cent in two to three years.

On a broader canvas, Bellens is extending in Europe, particularly in Spain where RTL now has 16 per cent of Antena 3 and is discussing joint ventures with Telefonica.

Bellens, having got to number one in Europe, is well aware of the need for critical mass to rise higher in the world league, and is confident it can be done. It is said he could possibly have more impact on the international media scene in the next decade than any individual since Rupert Murdoch.

Presumably, this will make him a little bit better known.


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