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BERLIN — German pubcasters ARD and ZDF are claiming victory after a recent European Court of Justice ruling that could prove significant for their own legal status.

On July 24 the court simplified what is and what is not “state assistance.” In the case of the pubcasters, viewer license fees don’t fit the bill — giving ARD and ZDF more freedom to undertake commercial activities, to the chagrin of their commercial broadcaster rivals who are already pushing for a ban on advertising on the pubcasters.

European law limits commercial endeavors of companies receiving “state assistance” and Brussels has not shied away from chiding European pubcasters in the past.

It has investigated charges by commercial broadcasters against France 2 and 3, Italy’s RAI and Portuguese pubcaster RTP for allegedly receiving illegal state aid.

The German Assn. of Commercial Broadcasters and Telecommunication (VPRT) has accused ARD and ZDF of illegally using public funds for commercial gain and filed a complaint against them with the European Commission in April, which did not pursue the matter.

The latest court ruling settled a decade-long dispute between two regional public transport companies in Germany. Yet ZDF officials see the ruling as supporting the pubcaster’s own definition of television license fees.

In a thinly veiled challenge to the VPRT, ZDF topper Markus Schaechter said the ruling was “a reminder to all those who take their complaints about state aid against public broadcasters in Germany to Brussels.”

According to the court’s definition, the fees are compensation for a public service obligation imposed by the government — in this case the pubcasters’ legal mandate to provide information to viewers — and cannot be viewed as state assistance.

Schaechter added that the ruling confirmed ARD and ZDF’s position that “license fees, which are strictly used for financing the responsibilities of the public broadcasters, are not state subsidies.”

The latest ruling is not likely to stop Juergen Doetz, the tenacious VPRT prexy, from his crusade to cut license fees and bar advertising from public channels, which he argues have an unfair advantage over commercial webs.

Doetz is also managing exec at German broadcasting group ProSiebenSat.1, which is being taken over by U.S. billionaire Haim Saban.