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Australian TV Baron's Eye on U.S. : May Spend a Billion or Two to Expand Holdings in West

October 12, 1988|AL DELUGACH | Times Staff Writer

American media keep using "brash" to describe Australian financiers, including Christopher Skase. But the label just doesn't seem to fit this 40-year-old television broadcasting baron from Brisbane, who has one foot firmly in Hollywood.

In an interview Tuesday, the sartorially exact Aussie came across as cautious and methodical, talking circumspectly about plans to expand his U.S. toehold by, oh, maybe $1 billion or $2 billion.

Skase is chairman of Qintex, one of those Australian "Q" names--like Qantas--that are not followed by a "u" but are pronounced as if they were. A one-time stockbroker and financial writer, Skase has bootstrapped himself in 12 years into majority control of a broadcasting-based empire proclaiming assets of $2.4 billion.

Only about $400 million of that is invested in the United States, Skase said.

The main U.S. elements are a 7,000-acre vacation resort on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and an independent TV producer-supplier fashioned in the recent merger of Robert Halmi Inc. and historic Hal Roach Studios Inc. Now called HRI Group, it will be officially renamed Qintex Entertainment at its Dec. 7 annual meeting, Skase said.

Skase noted that he spent 10 years studying how other Aussies made the entry into U.S. operations. He sees the western United States and Australia as very compatible parts of the Pacific Basin, which has "really emerged as the eye of the world's growth."

Skase made it clear that he relies heavily on his veteran management team from Roach-Halmi to build his U.S. holdings with care and exactitude.

No Priority Deals

But he also seemed hesitant Tuesday to adopt the scope of his executives' statements reported recently in Channels, a broadcasting trade publication.

For instance, David Evans, the Australian heading Qintex's Beverly Hills headquarters, was quoted as saying Qintex was looking to make more than $1 billion in acquisitions in U.S. media, entertainment and resorts "fairly soon."

The financier himself insisted that he has no priority acquisitions in sight, while also saying he's "consciously seeking possible acquisitions."

Skase also noted that he's aiming at having an equal division between U.S. and Australian assets, adding that this would entail "looking to invest $2 billion over the next five years." He said he sees much of it coming from "internally generated growth."

Robin French, another Skase executive, said in the Channels article that Qintex is actively seeking to buy more independent stations in the top 20 markets to add to its two stations in Milwaukee and Birmingham.

Asked about this, Skase said "the correct answer" is that its present U.S. broadcasting holdings are "too small to be an economic base" and that a decision to buy more stations or to sell its two will be made in the next several months.

Skase is seen by some as a potential media-entertainment goliath a la Rupert Murdoch, who owns worldwide TV facilities as well as 20th Century Fox Film Corp. But Skase said: "I am not seeking to emulate anyone. Full stop."

He even denied interest in the hallmark of entertainment moguldom, buying a Hollywood studio, saying the Halmi unit made a raft of TV movies by renting facilities on a project-by-project basis.

Will Upgrade Resort

How about that other compulsion of the true mogul, making feature movies?

Well, Skase allowed that he doesn't aspire to that yet, explaining the prudence of sticking to television--"the telly phase," which doesn't offer as high rewards but has "a lot lower risk," he said, most unbrashly.

Noting a goal of building on existing operations, Skase said one facet, the Mirage Princeville resort on Kauai, which has been awaiting extensive--and expensive--upgrading until the recent completion of two major Qintex resorts in Queensland, Australia. Now it will go forward, he said.

The other major facet is television fare from the Roach-Halmi setup, including its pride and joy, the 8-hour Western miniseries "Lonesome Dove," with Robert Duvall, which CBS is to air in February. Advance selling of the production already has exceeded its cost, Skase said.

The firm has a number of other TV shows, including "Crossbow," based on the legendary William Tell, and the first-run syndication of "T and T" starring Mr. T. It is a prolific maker of television movies and owns more than 1,000 films from the Hal Roach library, 85 episodes of "Leave It to Beaver" TV series and 50% ownership in a film coloring firm, Colorization Inc.

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