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Culture

Niche Channels Interrupt TV Monotony

Digital TV and its expanded array of special interest programming can break up the relentless parade of folk music festivals and reality TV on German television. But barely 20 percent of Germans choose to turn it on.

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Changing over to digital television means more channel surfing

German history buffs will no longer have to sit in the dusty, secluded back corner of the local library or endure relentless commercial breaks when pursuing their pastime. A new TV channel, Discovery Geschichte (history) catering to enthusiasts of the past starts Thursday on German pay TV provider Premiere.

The new station is part of a continuing trend toward niche programming in Germany. Long available in other countries, special interest channels like the Food Channel, the Weather Channel and Home and Garden TV have taken a long time to find acceptance in the German market, partly due to the limited bandwidth state regulators make available to them.

"There are more programmers than space," said Hardy Dreier of the Hans-Bredow Institute for Media Research at the University of Hamburg. "Limited space means specialized channels have worse chances for approval than general programs."

When three channels were enough

Hans Blix auf allen Kanälen - in Bremen

Even with more channels, sometimes there's only one thing on

The television-watching public in Germany was long satisfied with just two national and one local broadcaster until the emergence of private stations in the mid-80s. Now digital television in many German cities, means that viewers have more choice than simply turning the TV on or off.

Digital TV makes it possible to receive a larger array of special interest channels by squeezing more information into the same amount of bandwidth used by analog programming and is available via satellite, cable or antenna.

"People can target their viewing much better now," said Alexandra Schwarz, a spokeswoman for Kabel Deutschland, Germany's largest cable TV provider. "They can pick the shows they want to watch instead of randomly being told."

While the trend toward theme channels, which usually need to be purchased in addition to the free public and commercial stations, continues, it is difficult for them to find a large market because television has become more about entertainment than education, according to Klaus Melle of the Institute for Communications Science and Media Research in Munich.

"If television media were to stay the way it is now, free to air programming would probably be enough for most people," Dreier added.

If, however, entertainment programming like sports and films from free-to-air channels ProSiebenSat1 and RTL moved to pay TV, many people, particularly those with high-end entertainment systems, would be willing to fork out a little extra for the chance to watch, Dreiser explained.

Digital TV enables theme programming

Premiere Logo

Premiere is Germany's only pay tv provider

The 31 channels Premiere brings its 3.5 million subscribers aren't consumers' only way to escape the largely bland daytime soaps and reruns that fill German broadcast television.

To prevent people from getting bored while zapping on the sofa, Kabel Deutschland has also offered 31 niche channels, including The History Channel and National Geographic, on top of the regular public and commercial channels in its special digital cable package on offer since May 2004. SES Astra, the country's largest satellite operator, offers digital reception with a choice of over 200 channels, though less than a third of satellite owners use digital receivers and are thus limited to a mix of 46 publicly and privately financed analog channels.

Germans slow in digital uptake

While the German government has committed to switching completely over to digital television by 2010, some areas including Berlin and Hamburg already have, only about 20 percent of German households have changed over, according to a February study from the TNS media research group.

Satelliten Schüsseln der Kirch Media Gruppe auf dem Hauptquartier des TV-Senders SAT 1 in Berlin

Most Germans with digital TV receive it via satellite

Currently, two million receive digital cable, another seven million get digital reception via satellite and 600,000 use digital antennas, the TNS study said. About 73 percent of Germans above the age of three watch some television every day, and the average TV is on for 200 minutes daily, according to research from Munich's Institute for Communications Science and Media Research.

Some people who switched were forced to when the areas they lived in cut analog broadcasts, but others changed to receive particular programs, Premiere spokeswoman Anja Knigge said.

"The changeover is happening relatively slowly," said Dreier. "But the people who have the digital television use it quite intensively."

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