Household Fee A German Media Policy Milestone?

Under the household fee system, form 2013 each household will pay a fixed amount.
Under the household fee system, form 2013 each household will pay a fixed amount. | Photo (detail): Talaj © iStockphoto

From 2013, the Germans will no longer have to pay a television license fee, but instead will be charged a fee per household. That is what the regional premiers decided in the Fifteenth Amending Inter-Länder Treaty on Broadcasting.

Television license fees are currently collected by the Gebühreneinzugszentrale (fee collection centre - GEZ) on the basis of the equipment owned. This means that different fees are charged, depending on whether a person uses radio, television or the Internet. The maximum fee currently charged for all this equipment is 17.98 euro a month. Instead of charging per item of equipment, a blanket charge per household is to be introduced, starting in 2013.That means that it no longer matters which item of equipment a person uses to receive programmes from public-service broadcasting channels. Kurt Beck, Chairman of the Broadcasting Commission of the Länder, said this was a “milestone in media policy”.

Why are their television fees?

Many aspects of the financing of the German public-service broadcasting system are specific to Germany and can only be explained by looking at their history. After World War II, public-service radio and television stations were set up in Germany along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). These were intended to be independent both from the state and from commercial interests. The public-service broadcasting stations were given specific tasks. Their remit was to provide the population with information, education, culture and entertainment. To fulfil these tasks, the relevant stations (now ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandradio) had to be independently financed. That is why the GEZ was set up in 1975.

Since then, the GEZ has been responsible for collecting the relevant fees in each case. It has to determine who is liable to pay, which appliances they use and to dispatch the fee notifications. Since 2005, the GEZ has been able to exempt certain user groups, such as students and welfare recipients, from the fee. Another of GEZ’s tasks is to identify licence fee evaders - people who are able to receive public-service broadcasting channels but who fail to pay the licence fee. The GEZ is authorised to send out reminders or to report fee evaders to the police. It does not need to find out whether a person actually watches or listens to public-service broadcasting programmes, but only whether they have a functioning receiver. On more than one occasion, there have been arguments about this aspect of the GEZ’s work. It has sometimes been claimed that the GEZ uses much too drastic means to trace licence fee evaders. The criticism has often been exaggerated. The GEZ does not use secret police methods, nor does it break into people’s homes. However, when the household fee system is introduced, the GEZ will be given greater powers. It will have the right to exchange detailed information with public agencies, for example, residents’ registration offices.

Many people ask themselves why they have to pay for public-service broadcasting programmes, but not for the programmes broadcast by private television and radio stations. A number of legal rulings on broadcasting have confirmed that this is legitimate in principal. It has also been laid down that while the GEZ has to collect the fees, it does not determine their amount. That is the responsibility of the Kommission zur Ermittlung des Finanzbedarfs der Rundfunkanstalten (Commission to Determine the Financial Needs of the Broadcasters - KEF).

Why the change?

The first and main reason for changing from the present GEZ system to a household charge is the recent convergence of the different media, and the different user habits of radio listeners and television viewers. It is now possible to watch TV programmes via the Internet, the Internet can be received via mobile telephone and radio stations have made it possible to access livestream radio on their websites. Thus, it is no longer relevant to have a fee based on the type of equipment owned. Another point is the criticism of the current GEZ system, which is felt by many to be unfair, especially since the fees increased frequently. Under the household fee system, each household will pay a fixed amount, which is likely to be somewhat higher than the current fees, but is not supposed to be increased. Finally, the GEZ will continue to collect the fees, but will no longer have to pursue licence fee evaders quite so relentlessly. This will save public funds and the fee collection system will be considerably simplified.

A milestone in media policy?

Is this change the solution to every problem or even a milestone in media policy? Photo: craftvision © iStockphotoIs this change the solution to every problem or even a milestone in media policy? The answer to this is probably “No”. As well as organisational questions (such as how flat sharers will be treated in future or how companies and workplaces will be treated), there is now a new basic problem. The household fee will place the same burden on every household. If someone decides not to have a radio or television, they will still have to pay. Also, anyone who previously only registered their computer as a “new type of broadcasting equipment” and paid the reduced fee of 5.76 euro will in future have to pay the full fee. New criticism and discussions about the household fee are on the horizon.

Stefanie Jäger:
Die Folgen einer sich verändernden Mediennutzung für das Aufkommen aus der Rundfunkgebühr. In: Arbeitspapiere des Instituts für Rundfunkökonomie. Issue No. 165 (Cologne, 2003)

Henk Erik Meier:
„Für ein paar Cent weniger“? Ein Beitrag zur aktuellen Rundfunkgebührenpolitik. In: Arbeitspapiere des Instituts für Rundfunkökonomie. Issue No 197 (Cologne, 2005)