Public money for commercial broadcasters?

According to newspaper reports, the commercial broadcaster’s lobby organisation in Germany, VPRT, has started thinking about demanding a share of the public broadcasting fee. The rationale behind this idea is that private television and radio have the occasional programme that minds the public interest – however rare though it may be.

This argument is somewhat unorthodox, but for sure not to be dismissed out of hand. Who says that ambitious, valuable content can live only on dedicated channels? Why not maybe even improve the quality of commercial television by encouraging it to produce and air quality programmes every now and then? That would be quite like the New Zealand model of public value broadcasting, where culturally relevant programmes are funded irrespective of the channel on which they air.

But wait: Are there not already public interest formats in place on German private TV? Indeed, the broadcasting treaty calls for a certain percentage of independent third-party programming on every private channel reaching an over-all market share above 10 percent of the audience. The broadcasters affected by this regulation actually hate these so-called “window programmes,” because they do not have any editorial control over their content, yet are obliged to pay for them. And since at least some of these formats are everything but commercially viable, the host broadcasters can not even sell much advertising in and around them and therefore are ultimately compelled to pay subsidies out of their own revenue. Is that fair?

Part of the answer to this depends on how the public broadcasting license fee is justified and levied. German constitutional law basically stipulates that the license fee is kind of an insurance payment for a functioning democratic public sphere, but does not depend on whether the payer actually listens to or watches any of the pubcasters’ programmes.

It is really like with health insurance: The best (though, in real life, improbable) thing that can happen to you is that you are so well that you never ever need to collect any benefits. But you pay your monthly premium anyway, just in order to make sure that there are qualified people and technologies available in case you or somebody else might need them. And your money also funds medical research, which, in turn, educates you and society in general on how to better preserve your health.

The same principle applies to the broadcasting fee. It makes sure that there are some major media players in operation whose first thought is not profit, but the public good, and which are designed to be independent of government and state influence as well. If you are lucky and your democracy is working fine, you do not necessarily need these media players. But it is good to know that they are ready, and you can even take advantage of them by furthering your education. Or you may simply enjoy some entertainment without getting showered with commercial messages all the time. And indeed, particularly in times of crises, the audience flocks to the public broadcasters for information and guidance. So despite all complaints (which, by the way, are justified at least as often than not), there seems to be a special kind of trust.

This means that the duty of payment for public broadcasting should no longer be attached to the ownership of a device such as a TV set, a radio or a computer. The connection between the technical device and the public sphere is not direct, but rather abstract, similar to the relation of the tax payer to public services: There is no direct or symmetric benefit for the individual citizen to what he pays, just the indirect one of a functioning state. Therefore, the broadcasting license fee should be levied in the manner of a tax – and not only be paid by individuals, but by companies as well.

This, in turn, would mean that, together with the citizens, all private companies pay for programmes in the public interest, not only the commercial broadcasters through their mandatory “window programmes.” These were originally introduced only because then it was a privilege to use the air waves for commercial pursuits. This condition does not apply any more; although frequencies are not unlimited, they are also no longer scarce. Nonetheless, it is advisable to keep fundamentally separate things separate. As soon as commercial broadcasters can make a claim to a share of the license fee, they will almost automatically engage in doublethink: How can we make it appear that a programme is valuable enough to merit public subsidy and yet earn a (possibly even higher than normal) profit?

No, let the pubcasters worry about the public interest and the private stations about making money. If this separation is really unambiguous, it will bring about more honesty. And if that is achieved, maybe there will be some money for a fund to reward commercially intended productions which manage to be of great public value at the same time.