ARD axes sports director Bossdorf

Firing comes one month after 5-year contract extension

BERLIN — German pubcaster ARD did an abrupt about-face on Wednesday and fired its powerful sports director Hagen Bossdorf.

Move came just one month after the web’s bosses had given a five-year contract extension to the controversial sports boss, who has long been dogged by ethics questions and allegations he worked for Communist East Germany’s security police.

The high-level firing, extremely rare at a German pubcaster, was announced in a news bulletin on ARD’s flagship Tagesschau broadcast Wednesday evening. It represents a humiliating setback to ARD’s programming chief Gunter Struve, who had long championed Bossdorf, despite a series of widely criticized decisions in the past.

Bossdorf, who was named sports director at ARD in 2002 after a decade as a sports correspondent, had long been under attack for blurring the lines between journalism and business interests.

He wrote a book with disgraced Tour de France champion Jan Ullrich, and under Bossdorf’s direction, ARD’s sports department gave Ullrich a lucrative $200,000-per year contract to give the network exclusive interviews. However, these turned out to be little different from the interviews he gave for free to other networks.

News about the cash-for-Ullrich-interviews had enraged German TV viewers, who pay some E6 billion ($7.5 billion) a year in mandatory viewer fees, and German political leaders. Nevertheless, ARD bosses initially extended his contract. That prompted further public criticism that they were out of touch.

The final straw for the ARD bosses, who have faced withering criticism in German newspapers for sticking with Bossdorf for so long, was ARD’s recent coverage of a “Nordic Walking” event, in which surreptitious product-placement advertising appeared.

“In our view, it was a clear violation of the rules separating advertising and programming,” said ARD topper Thomas Gruber.

It revived unwanted memories of one of ARD’s darkest hours in 2005, when the pubcaster was hit by a scandal when some programs supplemented their license fees with illicit product placements. Unlike in the U.S., where product placement is legal if disclosed, German law prohibits all hidden advertising on TV programs. It was a major embarrassment for ARD, which vowed to clamp down.

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