Understanding the complex German public broadcasting system | TNZT | 16.08.2022


The Patricia Schlesinger scandal, which has attracted the attention of prosecutors, saw the RBB boss reportedly bill her government-funded employer for expensive catering meals at her private residence, facilitating a lucrative consulting contract for her husband.

The scandal was hugely damaging and became an opportunity for populist politicians to revive one of their favorite problems: the overspending of public broadcasters. The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) immediately said the scandal showed that public service broadcasters were “irreformable” and should be scrapped completely.

But even the more down-to-earth voices among Germany’s governing parties have called for streamlining of broadcasters: Last year the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) – a junior partner in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government – passed a resolution calling for the number of public TV and radio networks are reduced. However, the proposal did not make it into the coalition agreement and was criticized as “populist” by journalist unions.

The Patricia Schlesinger Corruption Scandal Has Put Financial Supervision Issues In The Spotlight

Regional dominance

But there is indeed a relatively large number of public broadcasters in Germany, including 21 TV channels and as many as 83 radio stations, mainly funded by the Rundfunkbeitrag levy (literally “licence fee”). Currently set at €18.36 ($18.83) per month, every household in Germany is required to pay this fee, which brings in more than €8 billion per year. Although Deutsche Welle is also funded by the government, the budget comes directly from the federal government and not from the Rundfunkbeitrag.

One reason for this great diversity is the regional origin of the German public broadcasting system: after the Second World War, the Western Allies reorganized the West German system in their respective zones of occupation, with NWDR in North Rhine-Westphalia (the British zone), SWF in Southwest Germany (the French zone) and four stations in the American zone: for Bavaria (BR), Southern Germany (SDR), Hesse (HR) and Bremen (RB).

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Between 1946 and 1950, the Allies gradually transferred control of these young regional broadcasters to the Germans, and these six broadcasters became the founding members of the “Working Group of Public Broadcasting Institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany” (in German, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich- Rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) in June 1950 – a mouthful that was eventually abbreviated to ARD in 1954.

The six broadcasters also used the British Broadcasting Corporation, the TNZT, as a model. That is, they were designed to be independent of both the state and the private market and were set up specifically by the Allies to help re-educate the German public in democratic values.

The Allies also insisted that German broadcasters keep their distance from the German government – something that worked rather too well for the taste of Germany’s first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. Adenauer was known to be impatient with what he perceived as the ARD’s critical attitude towards his government, even suggesting in 1950 that the British had been working to bring the ARD under the influence of its rival party, the centre-left Social Democrats. , to bring.

In 1959, Adenauer even began planning to create a second public broadcaster that would be federally organized rather than by the regional states. Adenauer’s plan was considered unconstitutional, but eventually led to the creation in 1961 of the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (‘Second German Television’, or ZDF), which was created with a national focus, but still managed at the state level.

coins and logos of the public broadcaster on a letterhead of the broadcasting tax

The broadcasting levy is paid by all households and companies


Even after 1950, the six ARD stations were not centrally organized and the ARD presidency was rotated among them every six months, so that no one could dominate. The ARD TV station (now officially das Erste, “the First”) began broadcasting in 1952, but the program was curated by the six regional broadcasters.

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ARD has grown steadily over the years, partly due to splits. NWDR was split into NDR and WDR in 1955. The Saarländische Rundfunk was added in 1959 and Deutsche Welle and the German radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk joined as new members in 1962.

The reunification of Germany in 1990 also brought in new members, with the establishment of the Ostdeutscher Rundfunk Brandenburg and the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk in 1991 and 1992 respectively, representing the new German regions.

Other broadcasters merged to streamline things: in 1998 two southern German broadcasters merged to form SWR, while in 2003 separate broadcasters in Berlin and Brandenburg merged to form RBB, Schlesinger’s former employer.

But the general tendency has been to diversify, continuously creating niche channels within each broadcaster. For example, in addition to the news channel and the four standard radio stations, NDR has separate radio stations that focus on pop, classical, youth and alternative audiences. It even has a “Schlager” channel that plays the much-loved sentimental German pop music. In 1998, three regional public broadcasters – WDR, RBB and Radio Bremen – joined forces to produce COSMO, the multicultural radio station that appeals to German migrant communities.

Querdenker protester holds up 'Lügenpresse' sign - a term for lying (public) media

Far-right populists target public broadcasters

A new skepticism

At the same time, the role and financing of German public service broadcasters have been the subject of constant debate over the decades. There was criticism of expensive prestigious game shows like “Wetten, dass…?” (“You Bet…?”), whose star host Thomas Gottschalk is said to receive $100,000 per episode.

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Criticism of the ARD’s coverage has been accompanied by almost every major crisis, and in 2020, populist sentiment against the Rundfunkbeitrag caused a minor crisis when the state parliament in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt threatened to block the most recent increase (at 86 cents a month). ). This caused an argument – as all 16 German state parliaments must approve any increase – which had to be resolved by the German Constitutional Court.

Hendrik Zörner, spokesman for the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), calls such developments worrying. “It is clear that financing public broadcasting in Germany is no longer a matter of course,” he told TNZT.

He added that public service broadcasting is vital in times of social crisis. “We need good independent journalists who inform, explain and provide background information,” Zörner added. “And that’s what the public broadcasters are doing and that makes them more important than ever in our opinion.”

Trust in the public media appears to be relatively stable. A long-term study of the past five years by the University of Mainz, the results of which are published annually, found that by 2020 about 70% of Germans trusted the public broadcaster, a figure that has only fluctuated between 65% and 72% over the past five years. year.

That’s partly due to the escalation of world crises, Zörner said. “When there are crises, some of which are existential in nature, people turn to what provides independent information, which is good journalism.”

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

While you’re here: Every Tuesday, TNZT editors round up what’s happening in German politics and society. You can sign up for the weekly Berlin Briefing email newsletter here.



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