Pubcasters in pay spat

Gov't officials call for ARD, ZDF to tighten belts

BERLIN — German pubcasters are facing fierce opposition from politicians, commercial rivals and irate viewers to a proposed e2.05 ($2.40) rise in fees to $21.35 a month.

Never before have the powerful ARD and ZDF had to wrangle so intensely for money — yet the timing couldn’t be worse.

The fee, paid by all TV-owning homes, must be approved by all 16 federal states but state leaders of political parties have protested loudly against it.

Indeed, politicians of both the ruling SPD party and the opposition CDU-CSU are calling for the pubcasters to tighten their belts.

Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber is even calling for a freeze on fee hikes till 2008, while Stanislaw Tillich, Saxony government cabinet minister, is proposing cost-cutting reforms that would force the public channels to replace programming rather than augment it.

Cash-strapped commercial webs are reining back spending as the advertising slump continues. They are lobbying against what they say is an unfair fee hike for the already deep-pocketed pubcasters.

Viewers suffering recession and high unemployment simply see the rise as unjustified.

Television fees have doubled in the last 20 years and even households that don’t receive pubcasters are forced to pay up.

Germany has long prided itself on its well-endowed pubcasters that offer critically acclaimed news, educational and cultural programming, free of paid advertising outside of primetime.

But critics have taken them to task for costly acquisitions of sports rights. Juergen Doetz, head of Germany’s association of commercial radio and television (VPRT), describes the proposed rise as a “soccer tax.”

ARD and ZDF paid an estimated $290 million for the rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cup soccer championships and ARD is eyeing rights to German national Bundesliga soccer, which are going for $105 million per season.

Fritz Pleitgen, head of regional web WDR, an affiliate of national pubcaster ARD, says the pubcaster is not raising funds solely for sports rights or Internet costs, adding that the channel is committed to cultural and educational programming.

ZDF topper Markus Schaechter dismissed VPRT’s complaint as an attempt to compensate for the dire financial state of commercial broadcasting.

He accuses the org of trying to alter the playing field in Germany to the advantage of commercial broadcasters. “The difficulties of the commercial TV sector that were caused by its own mismanagement are now to be corrected by attacking the public broadcasters.”

Pubcaster execs blame skyrocketing sports rights prices on commercial rivals — namely bankrupt media mogul Leo Kirch, whose demise was partially caused by his inability to pay for the Bundesliga rights he had acquired.

The pubcasters are now also coming under attack from the European Union.

In April the VPRT filed a complaint with the European Commission accusing the pubcasters of illegally using public funds for commercial activities.

Germany has not introduced the EU’s transparency directive, which requires public companies to operate separate accounts for commercial and non-commercial activities.

As a result, the Commission says cross-subsidization at the pubcasters could not be excluded.

Schaechter argues that pubcasters are not public companies as they are funded by viewer fees, not the government.

It’s a spat that will take some time to sort out. Meanwhile, it’s the viewers that look likely to be faced with the bill.

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