Digital road signs for German public television

As it has frequently happened in previous years as well, the annual Mainz conference on television issues (Mainzer Tage der Fernsehkritik), organised by and taking place on the premises of Germany’s largest pubcaster

ZDF, allowed for watching politics in the making. Though the official topic read “A changing public: Television in the digital competition”, the main underlying and well-orchestrated agenda was how to secure a bigger slice of the Internet for the public broadcasting system.

This time, presentations of actual user-generated and professionally-created popular online content did most of the trick. Since only very few conference participants were below the age of 30 and most of them worked in classical, serious quality media environments, they were quite easily and deeply baffled by blogger video segments, crazed youths performing music or comical stunts, and other adolescent online behaviour. In the face of such perceived silliness, even those critical of public service broadcaster Internet spendings were quickly ready to acknowledge that PSB’s online and new media services indeed seem to be contributing quite a lot of public value and deserve to be positioned prominently enough to be recognized by as much of the audience as possible. Therefore, it would not even have taken Zurich professor Otfried Jarren’s elaborate keynote address to change opinions. Jarren endeavoured to redeterminate the agenda-setting and integrating functions of traditional media outlets in the digital society.

Currently, the law restricts German pubcasters from offering Internet content other than accompanying materials to their broadcast programs; in addition, there is a self-limiting policy in place prohibiting them from spending more than 0.75 per cent of their budgets for online activities. Yet this actually amounts to a total of about € 52 million per year, which is not so bad, all things considered, and ZDF programmers and researchers quickly proceeded to demonstrate how they have put their share in the money to good use.

A recently launched innovative high-quality primetime crime series for instance, called “Kriminaldauerdienst”, managed to reach 2.2 per cent of its total audience through new distribution and viewing technologies (online and personal video recorders) and was watched for free by 180,000 users on ZDF’s web video portal in its first month alone. Most of the demand was for the preview of new episodes which are available on the web 24 hours prior to their regular broadcast, which means that the series apparently manages to retain audience interest for more than one show. This is all the more important since the demographics of German public TV skew very old, whereas half of the online users were below the age of 30. Therefore, by being available on the Internet, public service broadcasting indeed seems to have found a way back into the hearts of the coveted younger audiences.

Bolstered by these fledgling online success stories, ZDF’s director Markus Schächter opened the conference with the demand that the 0.75 per cent limit must be abolished. This quickly became a leitmotif of the proceedings, with media politicians Kurt Beck (SPD) and Günther Oettinger (CDU) supporting Schächter in the closing panel of the meeting. In tune with the grand coalition spirit, they both stated their intention to amend German broadcasting regulation to that effect and expressed optimism that issues with the EU, which is concerned that current funding for public TV online activites may be an inadmissible subsidy, will be resolved soon. In spite of more professorial support though, this time from Münster University’s Christoph Neuberger, another proposal went not totally undisputed: That German PSB be allowed to expand online activities beyond featuring their own programmes and into all-embracing portals.
But the conference was not just an event of public service navel-gazing. The roster of speakers and panel participants included the respective heads of diversification and multimedia from both major German commercial television groups

ProSiebenSAT.1 and RTL as well as spokesmen of a number of quality press publishing houses. All of them reiterated the message that while it is still very arduous – if at all possible – to actually make money with online video, it is out of the question that they want to try and carve out their piece of the anticipated future market. As a matter of fact, everyone including those from the medium formerly known as print reported that moving images had indeed boosted user visits to their sites and that audiences now consider video an integral part of their surfing experience. The only problem: Advertisers don’t, at least not yet. The representative of one of Germany’s most-visited web portals, “Spiegel Online”, conceded that ad revenues as of now just barely cover the transmission costs of video segments included in the website, while production, rights, staff, and overhead are still running at a loss. And “Spiegel” is the lucky one – most other ventures don’t even earn enough to pay for technical expenses in the video sector, let alone anything else.

Therefore, participants from the private sector could not entirely conceal a certain envy of the German public broadcasting system, which is well-financed through monthly license fees. Both commercial TV groups grudgingly admitted to being with their paid-for video offerings nowhere near Internet viewing figures like that of ZDF: Even their most popular TV shows and movies only sell a couple of thousand times apiece over the Web. In contrast to that, their free video portals like “Clipfish”  and “MyVideo”  are hugely popular, though, again, still far from generating noteworthy advertising revenues.

In the light of such differences between incumbent private and public media – both in terms of financing and content agendas –, a proposal by one venturous participant was quickly dismissed all around: That both systems might consider a joint effort in order to meet their collective online challenges and defend their turf against Web 2.0, Google and the like.