The Seven Network executive at the centre of a legal tussle with rival Ten about his services accepted an international role to stay with Seven a month after it showed interest in acquiring British broadcaster Channel 5.
The intriguing twist has emerged in an affidavit recently lodged at the Supreme Court of NSW after The Australian revealed that Seven was considering making a firm bid for British media tycoon Richard Desmond’s TV network.
Veteran programmer John Stephens signed a contract with Ten to become its director of scheduling and acquisitions on March 6, but four days later reneged on his deal and signed a new contract with Seven.
Mr Stephens claims he was dosed up on painkillers when he defected, but Ten has countered that Mr Stephens was induced to breach the Ten contract by senior Seven executives. An email sent by Tim Worner, chief executive of Seven West Media, owner of the network, shows that Mr Stephens opted to stay at Seven after being offered the newly created head of international development position on March 7.
The job description reads: “Charged with the ongoing expansion of Seven’s television business and program interests in international territories and also on occasion in Australia.”
If a deal with Seven and Mr Desmond eventuates, Mr Stephens could yet play a key role in the development of Seven’s first acquisition of a foreign commercial broadcaster licence if he remains employed by the network. Ten is seeking to prevent Mr Stephens from working for Seven for two years.
Seven proprietor Kerry Stokes has identified overseas expansion as a way to offset subdued growth in the Australian media market and create a new distribution platform for the network’s programming. Shares in Seven fell 1.83 per cent to $1.88 yesterday, as the company remained silent after details about Seven’s interest in Channel 5 were reported.
Channel 5 was put up for sale for £700 million ($1.2bn) earlier this year. Seven expressed interest in the first round of the sale process and may table an offer before a deadline on April 14.
But Seven, like many of the potential buyers, does not believe Channel 5 is worth the asking price of 10 times earnings. It’s understood a price in the £200m-£300m bracket is considered to be a more realistic assessment of Channel 5’s value, whose performance has been revived by Mr Desmond since taking control in 2010.
Since late last year, Seven has been pursuing a strategy of growing revenues from content it produces and owns in foreign markets. A specialist production venture has been tasked with creating new programming initially for the North American marketplace.
More recently, Seven tapped the world’s biggest audience, with the network in talks to sell three of its TV series to China’s largest broadcaster. State-owned China Central Television has signed a memorandum of understanding with Seven.
It’s understood CCTV will acquire airport Customs show Border Security: Australia’s Front Line, real-life police drama The Force and a series that debuted last year called Manhunt.