Public Broadcasting Between Attractiveness and Mission

ZDF in Mainz

Public service broadcasting in Germany has responded only slowly to the digital transformation. Will the administrative apparatus of the broadcasters succeed in managing the balancing act between attractiveness for the public and statuary mission?

That public broadcasting is facing a major and perhaps painful upheaval could already be seen in July 2003 from the lines on the forehead of the former News of the Day presenter Tom Buhrow. The newsman, famous for his gently sardonic moderation, had just accepted the post of general director of West German Broadcasting (Westdeutscher Rundfunk / WDR). To prevent a budget gap of 100 million euros in 2016, he had been obliged to announce massive job cuts. Every tenth job at WDR was to disappear by 2020.

In public perception, the public service broadcasters have become too big

This was just what critics of the public broadcasting funding model were waiting for. The future of public broadcasting seemed hopeless: the television, radio and digital channels of ARD and ZDF were too big, too clumsy and obsoletely structured. And then ARD snatched away the users of the German Newspaper Publishers Association (BDZV) by offering a press-like news report in its Tagesschau app. This was all reported in the coverage of the two parties’ legal dispute over unfair competition. The tenor was plain: the public broadcasting administrative big fish got too much money and exploited its market power to exclude competitors.

Public broadcasting on the right track

Do the public broadcasting programmes have any future at all in the digital age? Stephan Weichert, professor at the private Macromedia University for Media and Communication in Hamburg since 2008, is convinced that they do. Even in the digital age and with ever-differentiating publics, the public broadcasters have a mission to society, he says.

According to the programmatic principles precisely laid down in the Broadcasting Acts of the German federal states, the broadcasting programme should serve to provide information, education and entertainment. Main points are freedom of the press and independence from government interference. In addition to balanced coverage, public broadcasting should respect and protect human dignity. It should also be committed to upholding the truth.

What counts as true and good, however, cannot be determined by a quasi-democratic vote of some Internet users, says Weichert: “That content can be rated on the Internet with a click shouldn’t lead us to make this the benchmark of a good programme”. He warns against “buzzfeeding”, the total alignment of content according to quota aspects and effects, for which the website Buzzfeed, for example, is famous.

Watching TV when and where the user wants to do

The programmes of ARD and ZDF are still among those with the highest ratings; the public broadcasters reach a mass audience. But the useful life of television has been declining for years. This is true not only of TV programmes, say Weichert: “Classical linear television is an obsolete cultural technique; today the user watches how, when and where he wants to do”. On the basis of its “requirement of diversity” laid down in its programming principles, the public broadcasters co-determine political culture in Germany; a responsibility, according to Weichert, that should also apply to the Internet, “where substantive debates with the public are possible”.

More and more programmes are being consumed, supplied by more and more channels and used more and more, according to a 2014 ARD/ZDF Online Study, above all by younger viewers independent of time. ARD and ZDF want to respond to this trend with a joint digital channel for 14 to 29 year-olds. Originally, they had planned to offer a television programme, but the minister-presidents of the federal states put a spoke in their wheel. There was no budget, they said, for a full TV programme; the channel should be shifted to the Internet. After months of negotiations, politicians have thus forced ARD and ZDF to innovate. Moreover, the broadcasters will also have to cut their previous digital programmes, EinsFestival, EinsPlus and ZDFkultur.

The willingness to reform is there, says Weichert; Tagesschau.de is one of the “fastest and best news providers in Europe”. In addition, he says, ZDF Neo is in line with the zeitgeist and surprises again and again with high-quality programming.

Ideas for a re-thinking

Weichert admits that the public broadcasters, due to their large administrative apparatus, act a bit more slowly than others. This does not, however, keep them from making “revolutionary offers”. Weichert cites the Deutschlandfunk’s website as an example: “This is the way a radio station should look on the Internet”. The media researcher misses a similar readiness to experiment in other offerings, which seem to him to shy away from taking non-calculable risks: “On the Internet nothing’s for eternity; you can always turn around if something proves not to work”.

The broadcasters should not think themselves too good to make severe cuts, thinks Weichert: “They will have to ask themselves in future whether they really need every cutter and cameraman when other broadcasters work with video reporters, who combine both in one”. Another topic that must be discussed, he says, is the salaries of top-earning stars and talk show hosts.

The Internet has shifted the public focus of debate onto contents and structures, believes Weichert. This, he says, is necessary after years of committee work behind closed doors. Now it is time for the public broadcasters to take the wishes of the public seriously, without losing sight of their statutory mission.