Culture vultures peck at ARD, ZDF

Documakers protest plan to merge Arte and 3Sat

BERLIN — Facing mounting criticism for their increasingly commercial programming, Germany’s once sacrosanct pubcasters appear to be losing their grip on power as politicos demand greater financial accountability.

While ARD and ZDF may withstand the hostile climate, their highly respected European joint ventures Arte and 3Sat stand to lose from the growing perception that the pubcasters demand too much money while distancing themselves from their constitutional mandate to provide cultural, educational and informational programming.

In addition to the E6.6 billion ($8 billion) in license fees, which they want to raise in 2005, ARD and ZDF also take in hundreds of millions in “limited” advertising and sponsorship deals.

The pubcasters are now under political pressure to merge Arte, the German-French culture channel, and 3Sat, the German-Austrian-Swiss culture and information outlet.

That’s the plan put forward by Edmund Stoiber, Peer Steinbrueck and Georg Milbrandt, premiers of the states of Bavaria (home to Haim Saban’s ProSiebenSat 1 broadcasting group), North Rhine-Westphalia (home to RTL Television) and Saxony.

They have drawn up a wide-reaching proposal to reform the pubcasting structure.

Germany’s documentary filmmakers’ body AG Dok has loudly protested, arguing there are cost-saving measures the pubcasters could undertake other than merging Arte and 3Sat, which would severely limit the outlets for documentaries.

Not spending money on expensive sports rights are one example, says AG Dok prexy Thomas Frickel. “Using cost-saving measures as a pretext to cut programming slots for documentary films and other cultural and informational programming not only violates the public broadcasting mandate, it also puts into question the entire system of license fee-financed television,” Frickel adds.

Critics say the highbrow Arte and 3Sat represent everything that ARD and ZDF should be doing but are not.

Instead of offering educational and cultural programming, ARD and ZDF have relegated such esteemed but ratings-deficient content to Arte and 3Sat and have concentrated on buying expensive soccer rights and producing “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “Pop Idol” clones.

ARD has also drawn condemnation from viewers and the press for upping violence and gore on its critically acclaimed crime series “Tatort” — another sign of attempts to compete with commercial rivals say critics.

“If the last refuge of public broadcasting’s distinctive profile continues to be watered down, the public broadcasting offering will no longer differentiate from that of commercial broadcasting,” Frickel adds.

However, Gottfried Langenstein, head of European satellite programming at ZDF, which oversees Arte and 3Sat, says the two offshoot channels cannot be easily merged.

For one thing, their programming differs culturally: Arte was the brainchild of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and late French President Francois Mitterrand and is “a German-French project with European perspectives for the reconciliation of both nations,” explains Langenstein.

3Sat is a German-language culture channel for Europe’s German-language territories.

Nevertheless, opposition to the pubcasters’ modus operandi is rallying as the battered commercial broadcasters begin to regain their footing, galvanized by signals of a market recovery and the recent acquisition of multi-channel broadcaster ProSiebenSat 1 by Saban, who was quick to bash ARD and ZDF’s license fee and advertising-backed funding.

Whether the reality of the situation has sunk in at ARD and ZDF is another question: the pubcasters are said to be considering launching a new digital sports channel.

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