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Sloan Tunes Into European TV Business : Entertainment: Former mini-mogul gambles on Scandinavian television with stakes in 3 stations.


Harry Evans Sloan, former mini-mogul, is now TV kung.

Sloan, the onetime show biz lawyer who became a major B-movie producer in the 1980s, has refocused his entrepreneurial zeal on the emerging Scandinavian commercial TV business, where he's become known as the king of local TV.

Earlier this month, Sloan took his 3-year-old Scandinavia Broadcasting System public at $13.50 a share and raised $48 million. He calls Scandinavia the "filet mignon of Europe" and says his three TV stations are poised to tap into a deep reservoir of advertising dollars.

"Television has worked in every country it's gone into," Sloan says with the rehearsed ease that comes from a dozen investor road shows. "The point is to get there first."

Sloan is no stranger to high-risk gambles. In 1983, he and former law partner Lawrence Kuppin paid $2 million in cash and $10 million in notes for Roger Corman's film company, which was renamed New World. Over the next six years they transformed it from a small producer of B films into a "mini-major," with interests in film, television, publishing and revenue approaching $400 million.

But the go-go years finally caught up with them and, after posting a string of substantial losses, they sold the company to Revlon owner Ronald Perelman in 1989 for $145 million. Sloan and Kuppin pocketed about $50 million, which they split.

The rise and fall of New World left some people embittered. The stock fell to a low of about $4 a share after peaking at more than $22, and one shareholder suit charged Sloan and his partners with making misleading financial statements to investors. The suit was later settled, though the terms were not disclosed.

Now, after nearly four years of semi-retirement at his Malibu beach house and countless rounds of golf, Sloan wants to cash in on the commercialization of the European TV market.

The three stations Sloan's company has stakes in are TV Norge in Oslo, Kanal 2 in Copenhagen and TV5 Nordic in Stockholm. They reach a potential audience of 18 million viewers and collectively lost $5.6 million on revenue of $18.6 million last year.

Sloan says the stations will turn around as commercial broadcasting captures more of the region's advertising dollars, which historically have gone to newspapers and magazines. Television now receives only 10% of Scandinavia's $3.6 billion in ad expenditures.

When Sloan began acquiring stakes in the stations in 1989, he immediately took some typical American management actions: He slashed costs. At Denmark's Kanal 2 Sloan laid off half the 120-member staff, and at Sweden's TV5 Nordic, the station was switched to a cheaper satellite.

Sloan also recruited former-ABC Entertainment chief Lew Erlicht as a consultant, where he developed American-style "happy-talk" news, local game shows and magazine programs. The company has also brought over other American executives with backgrounds in commercial TV. The most profitable show on Norway's TV Norge is "Casino," which features a Vanna White-like co-host named Brigitha who never speaks, leading the press to speculate that she is a deaf-mute (she's not).

Whether SBS becomes the bonanza that Sloan hopes for depends in large measure if projections about the growth in Scandinavian TV advertising hold up. The TV advertising market has grown from $38 million in 1988 to $257 million in 1991 and is expected to hit $343 million for 1992, according to figures cited by the SBS prospectus.

And TV advertising as a percentage of total advertising in Scandinavia, which is just emerging from years of government-controlled public broadcasting, still lags far behind the rest of Western Europe. Sloan predicts that the upside lies in closing that gap.

But Bill Grantham, a Paris-based TV consultant and expert on European television, cautions that SBS is not without its well-financed competitors who have a long history in the region.

"Like a lot of commercial TV markets, Scandinavia is immature enough for a lot to come down to skill and talent: getting the programming right, getting the marketing right," says Grantham. "But it's not virgin soil. Pay TV is in. So is home video and some commercial TV."

Indeed, pay TV and home video gained substantial inroads into Scandinavian countries during the 1980s, helping to satisfy a pent-up urge for more choice in entertainment after years of government regulation.

Sloan argues that American-style clever and aggressive counter-programming will eventually win viewers over to his stations, two of which rank third among three stations in their markets and the third ranking second in another.

And that's the essence of his gamble. Sloan, who draws no salary from SBS, stands to reap big rewards if the stock soars. He owns about 1.3 million shares and has options to buy another 306,000 at 25% above the offering price. Based on Tuesday's closing price of $14.50, Sloan's stake is now worth $17.4 million.

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