Zeiler's elevation means RTL gets the continuity it requires

RTL parent Bertelsmann missed its chance to impose its own man, Alasdair Reid writes.

The sigh of relief was almost audible across certain sections of the European television industry when Gerhard Zeiler was given the top job at RTL last week. You could hear it in the corridors of Five's offices in Covent Garden, you could hear it at M6 in Paris and around the Cologne studio complex of Germany's biggest broadcaster and you could certainly hear it in downtown Luxembourg.

Because, of course, Zeiler, 47, wasn't first choice for the job of chief executive at Europe's biggest broadcaster, which this week announced 2002 losses of £38m. He wasn't even close. No, the front-runner right up until the 11th hour was Rolf Schmidt-Holz, the New York-based head of the BMG record label, and arguably the most charismatic manager in the Bertelsmann Group.

Relations between the RTL board and its parent company, the German media giant, Bertelsmann, have been fraught in recent months -- and this of course was one of the contributory factors behind the resignation of RTL's previous chief executive, Didier Bellens. The problem with Schmidt-Holz, from an RTL perspective, was that he was clearly going to be a Bertelsmann ally.

Luckily, from an RTL perspective, the Bertelsmann board took its eye off the ball at a crucial moment. The RTL board stood its ground, Schmidt-Holz's candidacy was blocked and Zeiler, the Austrian chief executive of RTL Germany and thus an RTL loyalist through and through, was asked to step up.

His first move was highly symbolic -- within hours of his appointment being confirmed, he had crossed the border to the group's Luxembourg headquarters, gathered all the staff in an empty studio, and reassured them of the continued importance of the Duchy as the historical heart of the company.

In so doing, he deftly killed two birds with one stone. Or maybe even three. He not only guaranteed strategic continuity at RTL, he nailed speculation that RTL's centre of gravity would be shifted to Germany. This speculation had been given added impetus by Zeiler's announcement that he intended to keep his position as boss of RTL Germany as well as taking on the top European job. Obviously, he might have been tempted to shift the HQ to Germany, if only for convenience sake.

But no. And the individual RTL station with arguably the most to be relieved about is the UK's Five with its recently appointed chief executive, Jane Lighting. Over the past two years, a faction on the Bertelsmann board has been questioning Five's ability to deliver. Now, Zeiler's confirmation that Five is a "core asset" ends speculation about a sale.

But just what can Five -- and the rest of the RTL network -- expect from Zeiler? From a UK perspective, he has an unusual CV for a television boss. After all, how many former civil servants become media moguls? Zeiler has solid management credentials -- for instance, he prepared Austrian state television for privatisation -- but he has never been a hands-on programme maker and he'd probably be dismissed as too technocratic for top media jobs in the UK.

But Zeiler has a superb track record in the biggest TV market in Europe: Germany. Paul Styles, the director of media at the accountancy and consultancy company KPMG, says he's a big fan. But then he might be slightly biased -- he's a close friend and was best man at Zeiler's wedding.

He says: "With Gerhard, what you see is what you get. He's passionate and knowledgeable about television and he's very open and frank -- it's a no-bullshit approach that gets him huge amounts of respect. He's an enabling manager. He lays down very strong and clear guidelines. He's charismatic -- not in a flashy way but in the way that he manages and because of his immense knowledge."

Zeiler apparently spends a phenomenal amount of time watching show tapes from TV stations around the world and has a knack for spotting hits -- not just the

obvious formats such as 'Pop Idol' (though many critics thought he was taking a huge risk when he took the format to German RTL) but right across the schedule.

German advertisers have consistently praised his adventurous yet highly successful programming strategy. But is there any anxiety now about the fact that he's keeping the top job at RTL Germany while also running the whole European network? Andreas Bahr, the managing director of Springer & Jacoby Media, doesn't think so. He concludes: "We like to see him staying in charge in Germany. He has made such a good job, not just himself but in the number of good people that he has around him. RTL in Germany will stay very strong -- and someone like Zeiler needs an extra challenge."

The Zeiler file

1986 ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation), general secretary

1991 Tele5, chief executive

1992 RTL2, chief executive

1994 ORF, chief executive

1998 RTL Television, chief executive

2003 RTL Group, chief executive