Published by Dutch Journalism Fund (Dutch)
As in other places, television shows in Germany are increasingly watched online. But German residents still need to pay a compulsory monthly contribution towards radio and television programming. Rundfunk Mitbestimmen wants to spark a debate by letting users decide for themselves which programs will receive funding and which ones will not.
A debate has started in Germany, just like in the Netherlands, about the cost of public broadcasting. Fewer young people own a TV or radio, choosing instead to watch their shows online when it is convenient for them, whether the program is shown by a public broadcaster or not. The fact that it is compulsory for every resident to chip in for traditional media, like TV and radio, is getting more criticised.
Germany has one of the largest budgets worldwide for public broadcasting; 8 billion Euros. Every resident pays a monthly contribution of 17.50 Euros, regardless of whether or not they own a TV, radio or both. Robert Schäfer wants to spark a debate about the way the money is distributed and spent by using his company Rundfunk Mitbestimmen. In his opinion, residents should be able to make the decision of what happens with their contribution, so he has created a website where people can select which shows they want to support financially.
The compulsory contribution started out to make the public broadcasting democracy stronger, as the contribution would ensure programming diversity and good quality coverage, as stated by Jörg Schönenborn, the director of channel WDR. In contrast, based on the 20th report of the Kommission zur Emittling des Finanzbedarfs der Rundfundkanstalten— a commission that investigates broadcasters’ financial support requests and advises the government accordingly — 49.1% of the public contribution is not spend on the democratic function, but on sports, shows and movies. A more specific insight per broadcaster or per program does not exist.
“People need to decide for themselves what programmes are important to them.”
Over the last few years there has been a trend of residents not paying their contribution. According to WeltN24, 4.9 million of the 44.7 million households had a backlog of payments by the end of 2015. That is 11% of the population who, since 2013, do not want or are not able to pay the compulsory contribution. According to the chairman of the Commission of Finances of ARD and ZDF, there are 2.2 million legal proceedings going on at the moment to collect missed payments.
The lack of transparency about the division of the money is an important point of criticism. Germany has the so-called Rundfunkräte, a commission with locally elected members who decide what happens with the money for the public broadcasters. The information on the division of the money is not available publicly. According to Schäfer, this is an important reason why more and more Germans refuse to pay for public radio and television. If you compare it with the minimum wage of 8.84 Euros per hour in Berlin, then 17.50 Euros per month is a big amount for many residents.
Schäfer has been having contact with a few members of the Rundfunkräte who are also in favour of change. For example, Heiko Hilker, member of the MDR Rundfunkrat for the middle of Germany, called his idea ‘potentially politically explosive’. The data about the preferences of residents can create more public transparency and turn the current way of handling the contribution upside down, according to Schäfer. Politicians, therefore, can use the point as an argument in the debate about transparency.
Despite this, Schäfer does not have a specific long-term goal in mind. “It would be amazing if the money of my website’s users was to be divided the way they want it, but how big this impact is going to be, I do not know yet. Money from people who do not use the website could be divided the same way as it currently is.”
Either way, he believes in the positive impact of awareness. “People need to think for themselves about what programs are important to them. The website is still developing and has 100 users now. Later in the year, a media campaign will follow to create more publicity. The users that are already there choose to support quality programs. Think about educational programs for children, science and research journalism.”
Even when sports and entertainment are chosen by users, that is fine with him. “The point is that there should be input from the residents, and there is none right now.”