Sunday, June 07, 2009

Public Interest in Germany Severely Threatened

I have just come back from Germany where I think public service broadcasting has gone into a tailspin this week. ARD and ZDF seem to have capitulated on calls by politicians and commercial interests to scrap a lot of the work they do on-line. The Berlin Wall came down nearly 20 years ago. This year a firewall of silence is being raised in Germany - which can have grave consequences for investigative journalism and feature making. I was struck by the entry and comments on this page from the Radio Netherlands Media Network site. I've cut and paste the following from there.

German public broadcasters reduce Web offerings

Germany’s public broadcasters will drastically reduce the programming they put online in response to attacks from commercial channels and newspapers that the online offerings represent unfair competition. Markus Schachter, director of public broadcaster ZDF, said the channel will reduce its online offerings by 80 percent and cut the length of time that catch-up programing is available for streaming. Reports on the official websites of ZDF and sister channel ARD will now be taken down after one week, and reports on sporting events, such as Germany’s Bundesliga soccer games, will be pulled after only one day online. Schachter also said ZDF would focus more on posting video to its site and greatly reduce its text-only offerings. The move is a sop to the German newspaper industry, which has complained that ARD and ZDF’s free websites unfairly compete with the online versions of their publications.

Readers added: It’s not like the German public broadcasters had given in voluntarily. Twelve months ago, EU commissioner for information society and media Viviane Reding had complained about the public broadcasters’ web offerings, citing EU regulations. She appealed to Germany that they should set limits to their public broadcasters on what kind of online content is acceptable, and the German states (Bundesl√§nder) followed suit in their new state treaty on broadcast services and telecommunication media (Rundfunkstaatsvertrag).

ARD and ZDF really tried to defend themselves. For example, they argued that their fee payers had funded their productions and should have the right to continuously access it. But in the end they had to cave in. I guess some politicians aren’t too unhappy that all the critical reports from political TV magazines will now vanish after one week.

The matter is even more complicated. Any online activities beyond making broadcast content available for seven days (equivalent to BBC iPlayer, considered as broadcast distribution, not as real online service) requires a procedure that is basically a copy of the “public value test” for the BBC. So it remains to be seen what will be the outcome of these public value tests. However, ZDF indeed choose to eliminate 80 percent (that’s the figure quoted in Germany) of its online content and not submitting it for the public value test at all. Also related to this matter is the closure of two WDR radio channels, presumably prompted by the circumstance that it was no longer possible to run more radio stations than authorized*) by way of distributing them online only. Thus WDR 2 Klassik and 1 Live Kunst have been eliminated. The latter was on digital broadcasting platforms (including DVB-S via Astra 1H) as well, and it has been replaced by Kiraka here, a previous online-only channel with repeats of childrens programmes from WDR 5.

Those reader comments are spot on. I wonder how the German public will repond? I feel the public broadcasters have been rather weak in their argumentation. Look at the image campaign like this one which outlines what rights you have to be informed. It doesn't explain that all this is severely compromised by what the politicians have decided to do now.

Related Academic Meeting on Public Media Policy

I am usually critical of the academic world for writing about the past rather than helping to map out the future. But a conference at the start of October in London looks like it has antipcated this move. The Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI), University of Westminster, and the European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) are organising a discussion on Media policy responses to the private sector recession in Europe on October 2nd.

In virtually every European country, the private media sector is suffering intense economic pressure from the cyclical downturn in advertising and the structural shift of advertising revenue to the web. As a result, corporations are pursuing every avenue to exploit new and existing means of generating revenue, and of maximising the potential of digitalisation. This is having a direct impact on the policy making process at both national and supranational levels as governments and regulatory agencies are coming under increasing pressure to restrict new initiatives in the public sector, to apply the strictest possible criteria to publicly funded media organizations, and to relax overall regulatory oversight of the private sector.

More details of the conference here.
No connection with the organisers, by the way.
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