German courts uphold TV fees

Prime Ministers had over-ruled monthly increases

BERLIN — German pubcasters ARD and ZDF have won a landmark ruling that could be worth millions of euros after the country’s highest court struck down an attempt by state governments to cut mandatory monthly viewer fees.

The Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe on Sept. 11 said the state prime ministers had overstepped their constitutional authority by limiting the increase without sufficient justification.

The states had cited vaguely defined “difficult general economic conditions” as justification for cutting the recommended fee increase for the last round of rate hikes, which took effect in 2005 for the period through 2008.

It was the first time in post-war German history that a fee proposed by the KEF, an independent rate-setting commission, had been over-ruled by the state prime ministers, a group of regional power barons.

They decided the e1.09 ($1.50) rise to $23.90 per month that the KEF had proposed was too steep for viewers.

KEF’s recommendation was actually 46% lower than the increase the pubcasters requested.

The state premiers nevertheless cut the increase to $23.51 and urged the pubcasters to cut costs to make up the difference.

ARD and ZDF — the world’s wealthiest pubcasters, which share $100.8 billion each year from fees with public radio broadcaster Deutschlandradio — took the states to court, arguing it was an unconstitutional intervention of their broadcast freedom.

The court found that the states had, in theory, the authority to diverge from the KEF recommendation but ruled in the pubcasters’ favor in this case.

“It was necessary to take this to court and we’ve accomplished our goal,” says ZDF topper Markus Schaechter.

The states, nevertheless, won something of a reprieve — the court said the fee needn’t be raised retroactively for the current period. The new period begins on Jan. 1, 2009.

While ARD and ZDF have drawn criticism for expensive forays into sports broadcasting such as cycling and boxing — which some argue go far beyond their public broadcasting mandate — the ruling is expected to lead to increased demands for coin from the pubcasters down the road.

“It’s a free pass for ARD and ZDF, a message to just keep on going as before,” wrote columnist Michael Hanfeld in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“The expansion of the pubcasters will continue across the board, with new programs and channels in TV, in radio and in the Internet, and with ever-greater sports broadcasting rights deals. They already get e7.3 billion ($100.8 billion). Now they will be able to feed even more off this ruling for a long time to come.”

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