COLOGNE — It was a clash of Teutonic media titans as the Medienforum NRW confab got into gear Monday with an entertaining debate on how to resuscitate Germany’s media industry.

Speakers included RTL Group topper Gerhard Zeiler; Peter Voss, head of pubcaster and ARD affiliate SWR; Urs Rohner, prexy of broadcaster ProSiebenSat 1; and Georg Kofler, chief exec of pay TV platform Premiere.

Zeiler, who boasted about RTL’s continued success despite the dire climate, poked friendly fun at Rohner and the plight of ProSiebenSat 1, still in the throes of reorganizing its future following parent company Kirch’s bankruptcy.

But in the end the commercial players ganged up on Voss, accusing the deep-pocketed ARD and fellow pubcaster ZDF of taking advantage of the advertising slump and the poor condition of commercial rivals by overbidding for popular sports rights, in particular German league soccer.

Zeiler alleged ARD was offering e55 million ($63.5 million) per season for the soccer rights; Voss called that figure inaccurate, although he declined to say how much ARD was set to pay, although sources claim it is closer to $52 million. ProSiebenSat 1, which recently acquired European Champions League soccer for an estimated $27.5 million per season, is bidding around $46 million.

Rohner also criticized Germany’s dual TV system, which has traditionally split the market 50-50 between pubcasters and commercial channels. “This construct doesn’t work if the public broadcasters see continued growth through viewer fees while commercial broadcasters continue to shrink,” he said.

Voss announced that the pubcasters had agreed to postpone their controversial fee hike until 2005.

Although he said he sees nothing wrong with fee hikes for the pubcasters, Zeiler called on ARD and ZDF to get rid of advertising on their channels, “which would create a model similar to the U.K., where only commercial broadcasters carry advertising.”

Zeiler didn’t mention that the U.K. is looking at the possibility of introducing limited advertising on the BBC.

Calling ARD and ZDF the true pay TV channels, Kofler added: “Premiere is not pay TV. We are a subscription channel. ARD is the real pay TV here, and viewers have no choice but to pay. The only way to restart the German media industry is to strip the broadcasters of their mandatory fees. The whole concept is an antiquated relic of planned economies and heavy-handed bureaucracy.”