Public Broadcasting Cultural Change or Sell-Out?

The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin at the Berliner Philharmonie.
The Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin at the Berliner Philharmonie. | Photo (detail): © Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons

German public broadcasting is unique in the world. For it is not only financed by fees, but also contains a cultural mandate in its statues. Now planned reforms are to change the structure of these broadcasters – with far-reaching consequences. An overview.

Bavarian Broadcasting (Bayerischer Rundfunk / BR) wants to shift time-slots: BR Classic, one of the few radio stations in Germany dedicated exclusively to classical music and jazz with a high journalistic standard,  will be replaced in 2018 by the youth channel Puls and will only be available in the internet, as digital format DAB+ and via satellite from this moment on. Southwest Broadcasting (Südwestrundfunk / SWR) has decided to fuse its two tradition-steeped orchestras, the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart and the SWR Symphony Orchestra Baden-Baden and Freiburg, into one SWR Symphony Orchestra in September 2016. And then the director of West German Broadcasting (Westdeutscher Rundfunk / WDR) is painting a gloomy picture with big, red deficits and embellishing it with alarming numbers and only a few comforting words about the imminent cutback of 500 permanent positions by 2020.

Some broadcasters are proud that they are retaining their own ensembles – orchestras, choirs and big bands; in Frankfurt even the legendary Jazz Ensemble of Hessian Broadcasting – and continue to want to finance them adequately. Others, on the other hand, see here considerable savings potential. Some broadcasters have already gone much further; they have already merged and cut and moved niche programmes to the late hours. And yet it is foreseeable that the costs which have been slashed are by no means sufficient to create a thriving prospect for the coming years. Each round of cuts is then only a harbinger of the next.

Cultural mandate as benchmark

The insecurities that have spread through the German public broadcasting landscape in spring 2014 are varied and complex. No one seriously doubts the need to save. But people often refer admonishingly in the media policy debate to the constitutive cultural mandate of German public broadcasting, which is intended to restrict the scope of cuts. At present, however, it does not look as if the admonishment has had much success and as if public broadcasting is again seeking its profile in the maximum and high-quality difference from private radio operating according to economic and commercial criteria. Much indicates rather the beginning of a profound erosion of public-service broadcasting’s understanding of itself.

The causes of this erosion are not entirely clear, but their progress seems difficult to halt. Economic pressure here is usually an accelerating factor. Here and there public protest seems worthwhile. But sometimes, as, for example, in the case of the fusion of the two SWR orchestras, even a month-long all-out assault in the feature pages comes to nothing. This has consequences for the discussion among the parties concerned, within the broadcasting companies themselves and among the interested public.

In many cases a kind of conspiracy theory has long since been afoot. In the progressive economic re-shaping of public broadcasting structures, it sees, perhaps somewhat simplistically, a paradigm change. For the legitimation of programme concepts seems less and less to be the cultural value of what is broadcast. In its place has stepped a ubiquitous cost-benefit calculation, whose guiding star is the audience rating.

Everyone knows that it costs a great deal of money to organize and record concerts, to commission, to pay for and to produce works. When all this can show no appropriate audience rating, the temptation to make cuts increases with every review. In this way, according to the theory, every difference between the programme policy of public-service broadcasting and that of private media dissolves. And at the same time, this way of thinking cancels the legitimation of financing public broadcasting from fees rather than from advertising revenue. If this manner of funding results in no audible, visible and obvious difference in the principles of programme design, why then the tax-like collecting of broadcasting fees?

Target group: youth

Sometimes the friction generated within the broadcasting companies also seems to be a symptom of generation change. In the internal debate, “old” radio seems to stand antagonistically against “modern” radio. But this too is a simplification: why should the younger generation be one whose listening needs are satisfied only by format radio with a comparatively small programme shaped by a hit-oriented and agency-influenced repertoire? In the good old days of public broadcasting, it quite saw its task as not only to fulfil the wishes of its listeners but also to awaken other, perhaps somewhat further reaching needs.

Nor does a generation-specific explanation for the triumph of format radio go very far. In the end, it is by no means certain that the young generation remains always the same young generation; that, a few years hence, it might not develop quite different listening needs, for which there is then suddenly no longer an offering. Even this argument accepts that a fictional and possibly fickle customer wish should serve as the guideline for programme directors of the public broadcasting companies. Of the old self-understanding of public broadcasting, which saw the broadcaster ARD as a cultural media platform, as a supporter and even producer of culture in broadcasting, there is already not much left. So seen, a paradigm change is taking place, one that could fundamentally alter the structure of German broadcasting.