German Public Broadcasters try to defuse Public Value Test

As the deadline for the next amendment of the German broadcasting treaty draws near, the debate about introducing a mandatory Public Value Test (see also my article from 1 November) is heating up. The “three-step test”, as it is known in Germany, is primarily supposed to make sure that public broadcasters comply with European competition rules.

The European Commission insists that media collecting public license fees do not exert influence with public monies upon the private media businesses market – unless considerations of public interest take precedence. To this end, member states must clearly define the role and function of their public service broadcasters and make sure that they do not overstep their boundaries.

Therefore, Germany has suggested a three-tiered screening process for any new or significantly changed offers by its pubcasters. Remarkably, by the way, nobody ever thought of questioning the status quo: Whatever public TV and radio have already in place is there to stay forever – whether it is sensible, desirable, necessary, or not.

Anyway, the three steps: At the first level, new offers must show that they are clearly part of the public remit. If yes, the second question concerns the offer’s qualitative contribution to the entire media landscape (including the commercial sector). Does it add to what is already available? At the same time, the new project must be checked for its impact on the media market. Will it obstruct the business of private competitors or even drive them out of the marketplace? If that is the case, it would only be admissible if its public value is really off the charts.

The third and final step is a financial check. Are costs and benefits of the project at a sensible balance?

So far, this is all just bureaucratic business as usual, performed by the supervisory boards of the German public broadcasting organisations. While these boards are, indeed, formally independent, they are under the influence of political parties and other interest groups. They tend to identify very much with the organisations they are supposed to control.

Imagine yourself on the board of a company. If that company asks you for permission to become larger and more profitable, would you deny this wish? Probably not. In case of success, you would be supervising an even bigger entity and most likely gain extra prestige and power. Quite strong third-party arguments would be required for you to feel compelled to slow the organisation that has put you in charge. The same goes for the boards of pubcasters.

In order to mitigate such effects, German lawmakers wisely put a special clause in the draft broadcasting treaty amendment. They suggested a consultation process with outside stakeholders. Theoretically, stakeholders could be any interested citizens, but in most cases, private broadcasters, publishers, rights holders and production companies would take the opportunity to speak up. They would have to try and prove that they could offer an equal or better public value without using public money.

However, a few days ago, the heads of the public service broadcasters wrote a letter to the German state prime ministers (who are responsible for broadcasting) in which they demanded that such consultations should only concern the economic impacts of projects submitted to the Public Value Test. Consultations should not be concerned with qualitative, content-related criteria.

That, if you will pardon me saying so, is just stupid.

Strategically, the German public broadcasting system, which despite some substantial lapses is still producing vast amounts of high-quality programming, would put itself into a much better negotiating position if it expressly sought a qualitative confrontation rather than a commercial one.

Economic and especially neo-liberal rationales almost unfailingly speak against public broadcasting. It is expensive, it is difficult, it tends to address minorities and it is against the paradigm of the purely competition-driven market.

Public service broadcasting could much better assert its raison d’être if it challenged its commercial competitors to demonstrate that they too provide content that is not just financially viable, silly, and entertaining, but that contributes to the public sphere, to cultural values, pluralism, democracy, education, etc. This could be really funny to watch, much like a casting show for good television and radio programmes. However, actually, it is doubtful that anyone would dare try.

It is absurd: The pubcasters are engaging in a kind of trench warfare in a desperate attempt to secure their current position, which is under attack from many sides. And now, as a new law is about to deliver them a golden opportunity to innovate and enhance the public’s attention and appreciation for their real and future value, they are trying to nip it in the bud. In this way, Public Broadcasting 3.0 is never going to happen.