Five years after being forced out, US company regains control of TV Nova

The 500 million euro sale of the hugely successful station TV Nova is the biggest business deal of the year in the Czech Republic. What makes the sale especially interesting is the buyer - CME, the American company which was controversially forced out of Nova just five years ago.

On Monday the richest man in the Czech Republic, Petr Kellner, made the biggest deal of his life, when his company PPF sold TV Nova, the Czech Republic's most popular station. What is interesting is who PPF sold Nova to: CME, the American company owned by Ronald Lauder which had invested in Nova when it began just over a decade ago.

In 1999 CME was controversially pushed out of the station by former director Vladimir Zelezny (who himself was later forced out of Nova by PPF), and last year Ronald Lauder won an international arbitration case against the Czech Republic for failing to protect his investment. The Czech state was ordered to pay compensation to the tune of 10 billion crowns (320 million eurs).

PPF is said to have made around 8 billion crowns profit from the sale of Nova - not bad after only two and a half years involvement with the station.

The deal struck on Monday is huge by any standards, and the US ambassador to Prague, William Cabaniss, described the purchase of Nova by CME as the biggest ever direct American investment in the Czech Republic. He also said it showed foreign companies had regained trust in investing in this country.

As for the running of Nova, CME says it has no reason to change either personnel or programming policy at the station. They say it is the most successful station in Europe, and seem to have adopted an 'if it isn't broke don't fix it' approach.

Many senior figures at Nova were on the other side of the barricades when CME was forced out in 1999, but it appears there will not be a rout. Programme director Libuse Smuclerova says there was no room emotion in what is purely a question of business.

The three main players in the story are very interesting. Petr Kellner is the wealthiest man in the country, though most Czechs know him from one 'official' photo, so closely does he guard his privacy. The PPF investment group has its fingers in many pies, and owns for instance the largest Czech insurance company, Ceska pojistovna.

Ronald Lauder is co-owner of Estee Lauder cosmetics company, which was started by his mother Estee. He owns a total of six channels in the former Eastern Bloc, including another TV Nova, in Croatia.

Vladimir Zelezny is one of the most remarkable characters the Czech Republic has seen in recent decades. He went from being a presenter on pre-1989 Czech Television to being spokesperson for the Civic Forum. After he became very rich through Nova in the mid-90s, things have gone downhill somewhat for Mr Zelezny in recent years.

Mr Zelezny is currently a Member of the European Parliament for an independent grouping. This week the European Parliament is due to discuss lifting his immunity so he can be prosecuted in the Czech Republic on charges of tax evasion and harming creditors.