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Hundt Talks With RTL Chiefs; FCC-Style Idea Gains Steam

FCC chairman Reed Hundt met Jan. 17 with the leader of Germany’s top-ranked commercial network amid increased calls here in Europe’s largest TV market for a Federal Communications Commission-style central authority.

Hundt arrived at the U.S. embassy in Bonn Jan. 17 to deliver a speech to a delegation of German businessmen, board members of Deutsche Telekom and politicians from the Federal Ministry of Posts & Telecommunications. He then traveled to nearby Cologne to meet for 90 minutes with RTL managing director Helmut Thoma and senior members of RTL’s management.

Though Thoma originally intended to discuss broad regulatory issues and their application to the German situation with Hundt, the conversation moved quickly to other topics, including violence on television, digital broadcasting and European quotas on TV content.

“I personally think we should head in the direction (of a German FCC),” Thoma told Variety before his meeting with Hundt. “But given the federal structure of media authority here, that would be a very difficult task,” he added.

German regulators face a daunting task: A crippling frequency shortage has kept 12 new applications for broadcast licenses on hold since last summer, when a moratorium was imposed. Those applicants include U.S. players Disney and Viacom/Nickelodeon, which are trying to break into the German market as broadcasters.

Hundt’s visit, the first by such a prominent FCC official in recent years, coincides with the political upheaval created by the frequency squeeze and a larger debate raging here about how to rewrite Germany’s Federal Broadcast Agreement. The outcome of that debate will set the ground rules for a new digital era and new players.

As Hundt sat in RTL headquarters in Cologne, the directors of Germany’s 15 regional media authorities convened a regular session to discuss the frequency squeeze.

Each of the 16 German “Laender” or states – with the exception of Berlin and Brandenburg, whose media affairs are jointly administrated – independently license broadcasters, who must then seek space and approval from the other states in order to be distributed nationwide. Common wisdom says this deeply entrenched, decentralized style of regulation makes it unthinkable that the various regional authorities could be bundled into a central watchdog.

But increasingly, critics are asking that key responsibilities be taken away from the states and put in the hands of some new central organization. Both Hundt’s visit and the ongoing frequency crisis put a spotlight on such calls for reform this week.

“There are clearly areas of responsibility that could be better handled centrally, and who occupies what cable channel is one of them. But it doesn’t have to be an FCC. It can be an association that lies one rung below a federal institution, but has the power to make certain decisions centrally,” said Norbert Schneider, director of the media authority in Nordrhein Westfalen and one of Germany’s most powerful regulators.

That basic opinion, uttered months ago in business circles, is now finding particular resonance in academic and political circles throughout the country.

Juergen Buessow, a delegate to the state Parliament in Nordrhein Westfalen and the Social Democrats’ expert on media topics in that state, has introduced a position paper into the legislature calling for U.S.-style handling of the problems of cross-ownership, media concentration and licensing.

“Anyone interested in learning from the American experience should realize things are changing in the U.S. very rapidly,” Hundt told Variety in a telephone interview Jan. 17. “Looking to America is like trying to watch a moving target,” he warned.

But the longer German regulators wait, the worse the situation becomes. Currently, authorities are paring down applicants by eliminating candidates on technical grounds.

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