MEDIA HEADLINER: RTL's chief executive plans a European style for UK media

Alasdair Reid investigates what Bellens is keen to do with RTL's holdings in Five.

really blame Didier Bellens, RTL's chief executive, for feeling perplexed at the way the "Dawn Airey in shock defection to Sky" story was covered last week in the UK press.

Everyone at RTL and its UK subsidiary, Channel 5, was amused at the fact that ITV was seen as the biggest loser in the Dawn affair, but rather less than amused at the widespread assumption that RTL would now throw in the towel and retreat from the UK market. Many commentators argued that it was indeed only a matter of time before Rupert Murdoch moves to acquire Channel 5 - or as it now wishes to be known, Five.

Hadn't anyone listened to Bellens' Royal Television Society speech a few weeks back? Clearly not. So, for those of us who are hard of hearing, read his lips: RTL does not intend to sell its 65 per cent stake in Channel 5.

True, it does not intend to buy out its minority shareholder, United Business Media, preferring, according to Bellens, to divert all available resources towards programming.

And, yes, it is true that UBM is perhaps keen to sell up; and, indeed, Murdoch is a possible purchaser.

But that's where the line is drawn. RTL does not intend ceding one iota of control. And in any case it has bad memories of a previous joint venture with Murdoch in the German market.

It's unlikely, however, that the message will sink in on this side of the channel, as few in the UK market are able to grasp the fact that RTL is the largest commercial broadcaster in Europe - and even if they do, they find it hard to take seriously.

RTL? Isn't it almost single-handedly responsible for the tiresome stuff showcased on that Eurotrash show that Antoine de Caunes hosts? All those buxom Italian porn stars and wrinkly German nudists.

Brits find it difficult to believe anything good can be headquartered in Luxembourg. The sleepy Duchy is surely a clerical error of a nation - a territory the size of London but with the population of Edinburgh.

RTL may be a dominant broadcaster in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Hungary and Luxembourg, owning both radio and TV in many markets - but isn't it a ragbag held together by a technocratic bureaucracy?

When Bellens says that RTL will soon be an outfit of the stature of a Disney, say, or a Viacom, no-one on this side of the channel actually sneers, they just look at each other knowingly.

RTL suffers from not having a larger than life figurehead in the classic media baron mould. Bellens, 47, isn't from the Barnum and Bailey school, nor is he remotely a luvvie. He's an engineer by training and a manager by profession and actually came up through the ranks of one of the group's previous shareholders, the Groupe Bruxelles Lambert finance house.

His lifestyle isn't glamorous. He likes "walking" in extremely inhospitable or mountainous regions of the world - recent trips have taken him to the Himalayas, the Libyan desert and the Andes.

These are serious expeditions (walking clearly being a euphemism for route marches and rock climbing), but he manages to persuade the wife and children to go with him too.

When he's not at the roof of the world, Bellens likes eating out in his native Brussels - and he's said to be "typically Belgian" in his love of haute cuisine.

There was some internal debate about whether Bellens should do the RTS gig at all. Although his English has been improving rapidly in recent months, he still feels stilted and slightly restricted by his lack of complete fluency. Some of his advisers thought he might be vulnerable to ambush - and that might convey all the wrong messages.

But everyone at RTL was pleased with how things panned out. His formal speech was indeed stilted, but a UK audience got at least a flavour of how he comes across in France and Germany as he warmed to the cut and thrust of the question and answer session.

In the current market conditions no-one is talking about doing a Viacom any more, but it's clear that RTL (and Bellens himself) remains genuinely ambitious. If Five begins to close Channel 4's audience share - as it has vowed to - then attitudes might change. And those who have a genuinely European perspective warn that there will come a time when the UK will find it impossible to overlook RTL.

Michael Winkler, Gillette's European media director, says: "RTL is a very ambitious company and they are doing a particularly good job in Germany. I think they will aim to create a European network that in maybe four or five years time will be able to come to big European companies and say, 'we can offer this and this across five key markets.'

"That will be of interest to advertisers - and it might allow RTL to grab 10 or 15 per cent of their budgets before they even start to talk to other stations on a national basis."

THE BELLENS FILE

1992: Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, managing director

2000: CLT-UFA, chief executive

2000: RTL Group, chief executive