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Public Television on the Offensive

Public broadcasters are under fire since proposing a hike in TV licensing fees. The increase has made public TV and radio the target of a new and testy debate about the broadcasting system itself.


ARD public broadcaster head Plog has said he will go to Germany's highest court to secure fee hikes

Germany can't seem to get enough of reforms.

The government is anxiously trying to pass a raft of legislation that would overhaul the country's health care and pensions systems. Now it appears television is the next target on the agenda.

Jobst Plog, head of ARD, the national consortium of public broadcasters, said on Wednesday that a commission would be formed to consider reforming the currently beleaguered group.

Ever since the commission charged with assessing the needs of public broadcasters suggested in mid-November that the amounts be increased by €1.07, to €17.22 ($20.51) per month from 2005, ARD has been at odds with politicians, editorialists and their viewers. Originally, ARD had asked for them to go up beyond €18.

Plog has warned that he will go to Germany's highest court to defend the hike in license fees, stressing that fees and structural reform were unrelated. He said that the increase in TV licensing fees was "somewhat less" than necessary to maintain the current situation.

But the premiers of three German states have rejected the plans for higher licensing fees. Instead, they say, ARD should restructure, cutting some of its 61 radio stations, merging TV broadcasters 3Sat and Arte and eliminating structural duplications between the TV stations Phoenix and Kinderkanal.

The German public TV and radio landscape is immense. It includes the nine state broadcasters that make up ARD, national TV station ZDF, the nationwide DeutschlandRadio as well as foreign broadcaster Deutsche Welle.

Resentment reigns

But resentment reigns in Germany against licensing fees, which -- as in most of Europe -- everyone who owns a functioning radio or TV is required to pay. The money goes toward public TV and radio.

A recent series in the newsweekly Der Spiegel that detailed possible abuses of privacy rights by the GEZ, the agency responsible for ensuring everyone pays up, added fuel to what has already been a smoldering dispute between Germans and their public broadcasters. Less than 20 percent of respondents to a Spiegel Online poll said they voluntarily pay licensing fees. And some complained that they only watched private television stations and listened to private radio stations and found it unfair to pay for services they didn't use.

The commission established by Plog is expected to come up with results in time for a conference of the German premiers in March. The premiers will then examine the proposals their colleagues recently made to trim the ARD. Some of them have already said they won't approve the licensing fees increase without the ARD undergoing structural reform.

Their rejection of the fees hike could send the public broadcasters back to the drawing board.

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