German pubs under fire

COLOGNE — European Union officials and politicians in Bonn are attacking what they term the privileged position of German pubcasters ARD and ZDF.

In a speech Wednesday that stirred controversy at the Media Forum confab in Cologne, EU telecommunications commissioner Martin Bangemann told members of the industry that “creating special clauses to protect the established (networks) is contrary to economic dynamism and employment growth.”

Bangemann argued that the same competition regulations that apply to private stations should also be extended to public broadcasters.

The EU official’s criticism of the pubcasters refers to their recent launch of two specialized channels: the kidvid Kinderkanal and info channel Phoenix.

Unfair competition charge

Commercial broadcasters have lodged a complaint with the EU that these channels constitute a form of unfair competition. Phoenix and Kinderkanal not only take up space in Germany’s crowded cable systems that might otherwise go to private webs, but they are funded by mandatory viewing fees, broadcasters argue, giving them an advantage over ad-financed channels with similar programming content, such as news channel N-TV and Nickelodeon.

Now the pubcasters are under fire in Bonn. Financial officials are reported to be considering taxing ARD and ZDF at the same level as commercial channels. Moreover, conservative politicians are challenging the pubcasters’ main source of funding.

Arguing that “it is not logical to be forced to pay for services that are not used,” a group of politicians from the ruling CDU/CSU and FDP parties have called for a reexamination of the payment structure supporting the pubcasters.

Change in fee system

A recent survey found that 55% of Germans would like to see the mandatory fee system changed. Together, the pubcasters claim ratings of greater than 30% of available viewers, but they also play to an aging audience. According to the survey, 34% of households would be willing to give up watching public channels in exchange for a waiver of the fee.

With their bloated organizations and dwindling ad revenues, ARD and ZDF have announced that they expect to rack up large deficits by the year 2000.

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