German broadcasting in a crisis of meaning

Out of the 7,000 participants and more than 500 speakers at this year’s Munich Media Days, it took comedian Oliver Kalkofe to put the subliminal feeling of general cluelessness and perplexity into words: Fewer and fewer Germans, he said in his keynote, are voluntarily watching TV anymore. People either tend to find something else entirely or are simply too tired to get annoyed with what they see. What once had been a thriving and vigorous medium, he complained, has now been reduced to a state where the main objective is economic survival with the least actual effort possible.

The Munich Media Days, held from 7-9 November, have established themselves as the most important and most popular annual meeting place for German media professionals. They were bursting at the seams as the organisers endeavoured to fit a virtually all-embracing cross section of current developments and issues into three days of conference. Unlike at competing events in Hamburg, Berlin or Cologne, the other major German media centres, even obscure topics were sure to be rewarded by significant audience interest.

Yet, despite record attendance and the high spirits characteristic of the media crowd, the search for orientation was palpable: Television is in a crisis, because it has finally started to notice how it is being cornered by the web, but seems unable to come up with the creativity and the money to defend its position. Radio is weighed down by ever more delays in the digital switch over and, of course, online competition. And the print media are still grappling with – guess what? – their survival options in times of the Internet.

Regulators and media politicians have largely been stricken by the same bewilderment and could be watched desperately trying to keep on top of the developments. Somewhat surprisingly, of all people Hans Hege, head of the Berlin-Brandenburg media authority, turned out to be the most radical critic of current German media legislation – which is actually giving him his job. Lawmakers are currently gearing up for the 10th revision of the federal broadcasting treaty, the law setting the basic rules for all electronic media. Amendment Nos. 11 and 12 are already under preparation.

Hege, approaching retirement and therefore rather fearless, dared to say what most others could not even allow themselves to think: Mere amendments to a law originally made for broadcasting in the late 1980s are a complete waste of time. Digitalisation, globalisation, and the Internet require a fundamentally new approach to the issues of pluralism, media ownership and content regulation. Yet, the tendency to always just patch up the old law perpetuates outdated rules in an environment that has already developed a few stages beyond.

Therefore, Hege continued, with conventional broadcasting no longer the sole major opinion-forming force, and distribution channels no longer scarce, licensing of TV and radio channels has become completely obsolete, and with it the variety of public institutions (such as Hege’s own) in place to perform just this task. The licensing process remains in place basically only because it traditionally falls under the domain of the German states (Länder) rather than federal jurisdiction, and the states will not let go of this toy, however antiquated it may be.

Apparently, it takes the older generation of media politicians who do not aspire to new offices or positions any more, to form the avant-garde of Germany’s overdue media legislation reform. Hege, echoing the European Commission’s ideas about a new concept of risk-based regulation to ensure pluralism in a liberalised media landscape, thus put himself to the forefront of the debate.

With a number of other speakers, though, Europe was not very popular. First and foremost, Bavaria’s new prime minister Günther Beckstein attacked Commissioner Viviane Reding (without mentioning her name) for trying to interfere with German interior media affairs. He called on German policy makers to actively shape media regulation themselves rather than being overruled either by Brussels or the German constitutional court, both of which has happened lately (see my article from 25 October).

And Tobias Schmidt, lobbyist for the RTL Group, said that present EU policy puts media companies into a schizophrenic situation: The Audiovisual Media Directive (formerly known as the Television Without Frontiers Directive) regards television as a cultural good which must comply with relatively high qualitative content requirements. But at the same time, the Commission suggests that air frequencies be auctioned off in a purely competitive fashion instead of being allocated for free to media outlets performing at least in part a public service.

Also under discussion was, once again, public broadcasting. Private companies are at odds with the pubcasters expanding their activities into the online realm, at least as long as these endeavours are financed through the mandatory license fee. Yet, many speakers came to the defense of the public broadcasters’ new media initiatives. Cutting public broadcasting off from the Internet would mean that it would go extinct within the next 10 or so years, as younger generations turn away from broadcasting to use video on demand, podcasts, and mobile and interactive media. And if the public broadcasting remit is of generally accepted value in conventional media, why would it not be in new media environments?

In this relatively favourable climate, the pubcasters dealt themselves a heavy blow though, when Carl-Eugen Eberle, attorney to public telecaster ZDF, claimed that the upcoming “public value test” (see my article from 1 November) would from his perspective not be supposed to give outside stakeholders an actual influence on the decision-making process, but rather non-bindingly collect their suggestions. He did not need to spell out that these suggestions would then be most probably ignored.

In summary, and with only a few exceptions, the main problem of the German media sector appears to be that most players, public and commercial, keep clinging to their accustomed ways of thinking and going about their business, trying to carry on with the traditional arrangements for as long as possible. And so far there was not much domestic potential for actual change management recognisable. Therefore it may well be that, despite all pleas to the contrary, the next strong impulse will have to come from Brussels.