Public Value in Public Service Broadcasting --- Case Study in Germany

2005-11-15
 
"Public Service Broadcasting - Good or Bad?" It depends. -- In Western Europe, there has always been a consensus as regards to what PSB should be. Now, however, the rise of the hybrid relationship in communications media undermines the statutes of hitherto established borderlines and consequently necessitates the revision of the functional mandate. To ensure quality in multi-platform services, the public service contents should, appropriate funding provided, serve as a standard.

The European Commission recently launched an inquiry on behalf of German PSB evolving around the question whether the licence fee collected to finance the German PSBs should be classified as an illegal state aid. This may well put the notion of national PSBs to the test, drawing a future scenario for most Western Europe.

Assessing the facts of German PSB in this case study, I would argue that PSB is an integrative part of a maintaining national media identities beyond prominent political or commercial interests.

German Case

German PSBs have proven to score high when it comes to the only scarce resource in the Digital Age ?the audience's time. Germany's two nation-wide PSB television channels, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der offentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ARD) and the Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen (ZDF), achieve a 8 pm prime-time market share of approximately 40 %. ARD offers the Erste (the First Channel) and 10 Dritte (regional programming from the 16 federal states' 10 PSB stations) while the ZDF offers the ZDF channel only. They also provide several special interest channels ( for example Phoenix, KiKa and ARTE). Regarding individual channels, ZDF is the most widely watched at 13.6 % while the most popular commercial channel RTL achieves a total of 13.2 %. Like in the UK, where private broadcasting was introduced as early as the mid-fifties, Germany allowed commercial entrepreneurs to offer broadcasting in 1984.

Independence

When German PSB post- WW2 was modelled after the BBC, the prime aim was to prevent political influence on programming. During the Nazi reign in the early 20th Century Germany, the established centralised broadcasting system was used as a tool of government propaganda. Consequently after WW2, the primary objective of broadcasting regulation was to provide independent and pluralistic programming. This has been achieved by the PSB agencies' internal management structure and procedural safeguards.

In accordance with the basic communications rights of free expression and freedom to access information guaranteed in art. 5 sec. 1 German Constitution (Grundgesetz, GG) media laws such as the Interstate Treaty on Broadcasting from August 31, 1991 as amended October 2004, as well as the Rundfunkgebuehrenstaatsvertrag, Rundfunkfinanzierungsstaatsvertrag, ARDStV, ZDFStV and the Interstate Treaty on Deutschlandradio are aimed at the provision of diversity of opinions. Art. 5 sec 1 GG quotes: "Everyone shall have the right to freely express and disseminate one's opinion in form of speech, writing and pictures, and to freely inform oneself by using generally accessible sources. Freedom of press and freedom of reporting by means of broadcast and by using film are guaranteed. There shall be no censorship."

The 16 German states constituting the federation have the parliamentary jurisdiction with regard to the media, safeguarding the free and open process of forming public and individual opinion. According to art. 70 sec. 1 GG, the states have the legislative competence unless the constitution provides a legislative competence for the federal state. The competence to ensure the functioning of the media system is in the hand of the states. This includes further objectives like guaranteeing variety and diversity, and the fair chance of participating in public communication. The legislator has to fulfil this task without interfering with the journalistic autonomy of the media, without any state interference.

For example, German PSB is funded by a licence fee: Every household which owns a broadcasting programme receiving TV set is subject to a mandatory fee. It is collected by the broadcasters themselves. It is not a tax collected by the state. Moreover, the amount of the monthly fee is not determined by the broadcasters or the federal government but state parliaments with the assistance of an independent commission (Kommission zur Ermittlung des Finanzbedarfs, KEF). Currently, the licence fee is 16.50 Euro/month. It is adapted every four years and was last raised in April 2005.

Innovation

PSB's core elements have been described and researched abundantly. When critically examining the arguments for PSB today, the element of Independence needs to be seen in close context with Innovation and Proportionality. The all prominent danger of market failure's result of "More of the Same" can only be met by innovation. Like the BBC, German ARD and ZDF have a prerogative to distribute original national productions promoting competition and plurality in this sector. The first and often copied definition the of a PSB remit was given by Lord John Reith, the British Broadcasting Corporation's first Director General (1927-1938) who claimed the BBC's public service aim to be "to educate, inform and entertain" was an innovation in itself.

Since then, innovation has to be an active effort and encompasses the positive aspects of "change". And I would like to join in with Mr. Chu Pui Hing, Director of Broadcasting at Radio Television Hong Kong (http://www.rtk.org.hk/mediadigest/20050517_76_120450.html) agreeing with the former Director General of BBC, Greg Dyke: "The stark choice facing the BBC today is that we either change or we simply manage decline gracefully".

For change to be innovation, it requires an idea of direction. PSB should aim for coherence, consistence, reliability, information - in short "quality". This, however, cannot be monitored easily. PSBs have to be autonomous both with regards to the political and commercial influences but also when it comes to quality as a public value delivered by PSB. As Wolff argued in "In Defense of Anarchism": When we describe someone as a responsible individual, we do not imply that he always does what is right, but only that he does not neglect the duty of attempting to ascertain what is right. The responsible man does acknowledge himself bound by moral constraints, but he insists that he alone is the judge of those constraints.

Proportionality

The inquiry of the European Commission corresponds closely with the notion of proportionality: It monitors the PSB's funding to guarantee that it corresponds exactly to the PSB's financial need. Overpayment to the detriment of commercial competitors would be an illegal subsidy under state aid rules. As the need is largely influenced by what PSBs decide to offer, the format which the PSBs decided to adapt for their remit and the funding mechanisms established to sustain PSB's role in the market are closely linked. Any developments in programme, technical or other issues are subject to the availability of appropriate financial resources. Therefore, the nub of public service broadcasting may well be the extent to which it serves the public interest and, in so doing, forecloses the market or makes it difficult for others to supply services.

The broadcasting market is likely to remain broadly oligarchic, due to economies of scale and scope. Taking into account that 1,540 million Euro of ZDF's total operating budget of 1,803 million Euro in 2004 are derived from the licence fee payers, market failure does give considerable insights into specific aspects of PSB. Very unlike the first predictions at the dawn of digitalized provision of information, the digital age sees a small number of vertically integrated players, raising the barriers to enter the market significantly. Owing to this dependency on adequate funding, a strong case remains for intervention to encourage the provision of public service content.

Mandate for the Future

There have been enormous benefits in giving ARD and ZDF - and other broadcasters with public service obligations - a very free reign. Their audiences are arguably among the best served on the planet in terms of domestic content, and a range of free services. But the development until now has been based on ill-defined goals and the result has been a lack of predictability and purpose of PSB actions in this area. It is the job of the public and the Government to provide ARD and ZDF with a long term purpose and goals for the future.

The European Commission, too, came to the preliminary conclusion that German PSBs don't have a clear public service remit which would distinguish them sufficiently from commercial competitors to justify the subsidy. -- Keys to a mandate to be upheld in the future, as the British regulatory authority Office of Communications (OFCOM) has pointed out, could also be "To reflect and strengthen our cultural identity through original programming" and "To make us aware of different cultures and alternative viewpoints, through programmes that reflect the lives of other people and other communities" (see www.ofcom.org.uk/tv/psb_review/).

This in the case of Germany, has been a continuous challenge with regards to a post-1989 re-united Germany. On a different level from the economically motivated EU-debate, Germany will have to lobby for a cultural identity and sovereignty, linking PSB defence and preservation of cultural diversity in a growingly global audiovisual industry. In the multi-channel media landscape this has changed the question from "PSB -- Good or Bad?!" to "PSB -- Yes or No?" referring to an issue of relevance not only to Germany but also to other European PSBs. -- Assessing the case study above , my answer has to be: "PSB: Absolutely!?
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