ARD and ZDF must change fundamentally

With the resignation of the RBB director, the problems of contribution-financed broadcasting in Germany have not been resolved. If the institutions do not want to lose their acceptance, they have to become leaner, cheaper, more remote from the state and more plural.

The public prosecutor’s office is investigating former ARD chairwoman Patricia Schlesinger on suspicion of infidelity and accepting benefits.

Hendrik Schmidt / DPA

Alexander Kissler is the political editor of the NZZ in Germany.

Alexander Kissler is the political editor of the NZZ in Germany.


You are reading an excerpt from the weekday newsletter “The Other View”, today by Alexander Kissler, editor in the Berlin office of the NZZ. Subscribe to the newsletter for free. Not resident in Germany? Benefit here.

The director of Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB) resigned late and without regret. To be more precise: Patricia Schlesinger offers the Broadcasting Council to refrain from extending the contract if her lawyer and the broadcaster agree on a “contractual waiver”.

Schlesinger’s position had become untenable after a bundle of affairs involving an expensive office and expensive company car, dubious consultancy contracts, official dinners at home and the merging of private and official interests. In the meantime, the public prosecutor’s office is investigating on suspicion of infidelity. The former chairman of the ARD will go down in history as the artistic director who dealt particularly freely with the citizens’ fee money, also called the “democracy tax” by the broadcasters.

As correct as the criticism of Schlesinger is, the danger of treating the case as an isolated case is just as great. ARD and ZDF have fundamental structural problems.

Schlesinger’s princely salary is no exception

There has been a lot of talk in the past few days about Schlesinger’s annual income of 303,000 euros, topped up by a five-digit bonus; Even the Federal President does not earn that much. That is indeed princely, but the outgoing RBB boss is not alone. Germany’s public directors are among the top earners with annual incomes between 245,000 and 413,000 euros.

The high income is justified by the responsibility for thousands of employees and budgets of up to 2 billion euros. But that is the first structural problem: public broadcasting in Germany is too big. No other country in the world affords such an expensive system.

Tiny institutions such as Radio Bremen or Saarländische Rundfunk are just as questionable as the numerous double structures. Bayerischer Rundfunk, for example, reports on the Bayreuth Festival with both BR 24 and BR Klassik. For major sporting events, ARD and ZDF come on in parallel.

The «Contribution Service» knows no pity

Funding is the second key issue. The broadcasters receive their money risk-free. Broadcasting contributions add up to 8.4 billion euros annually. Every household and every company has to pay, whether they take advantage of the offers or not. Freelancers are kept short, expansion plans flourish. Schlesinger also fell over the construction of a new media company, the costs of which are getting out of hand and from which an army of consultants are making money. An exception? The WDR is currently building in Cologne, the SWR in Mannheim and Tübingen.

Also because of this investment euphoria, the license fee should not increase, but decrease. It is out of date for the broadcasters to register their requests themselves and for them to be more or less waved through by the “Commission for Determining Financial Needs”. This also applies to the merciless severity with which the «Contribution Service» sues for the mandatory amounts if necessary. However, the Federal Constitutional Court regularly confirms all these privileges. Nevertheless, only those who are actually watching or listening should have to pay.

Inadequate control is the third problem, and closeness to the state is the fourth problem. In the jungle between the broadcasting council, the board of directors and the television council, politically clever string pullers are the ones who succeed. You know each other, you get along. There is no such thing as effective external control or merciless internal criticism.

The state as a kind, giving hand

The institutions see themselves as the protective shield of democracy and sense populism behind every objection. Pro-government educational journalism dominates commentary and contributions. A correspondent recently warned of demonstrations “against the entire state”, another commentator appealed to the state “not always to give”. Diversity is invoked, but a variety of opinions alienates one. For every hundred left-wing critics of capitalism there is one free market vote.

As popular support dwindles, real reform is unlikely. Political pressure is also needed for this, but this has hardly been discernible so far. Public service broadcasting with its unchanged many valuable offerings is too important to disappear. But he’s also in too bad a condition to be defended the way he is today.

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