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German household TV levy ruled constitutional

Chase Winter with AFP, dpa, epd
July 18, 2018

Germany's top court has ruled a monthly fee levied on every household to fund public broadcasters is constitutional. The fee brings in €8 billion a year and has had its critics, and its supporters.

German ZDF and ARD public broadcaster symbols
Image: picture alliance/dpa/A. Burgi

A monthly fee levied on every German household to fund public broadcasters is legal, with one exception, the Federal Constitutional Court ruled on Wednesday.

For years, critics have lashed out at the monthly fee to support public broadcasters and finally brought their case to the top court.

The Karlsruhe-based court ruled that the fee was justified by the broad programming options offered and was levied "specifically for the financing of public service programing that is fundamental to democracy."

However, the court upheld one complaint and ruled for a single exception. It deemed levying the fee more than once on owners of a second home was illegal. Th court ordered new rules to be drawn up by 2020 and in the meantime owners of multiple properties are no longer liable to pay the levy more than once.

What is the broadcasting fee?

Every house or apartment must pay a monthly fee of €17.50 ($20.35) to support independent public television and radio stations.

The €8 billion collected annually from 45 million homes goes to fund the public service broadcaster consortium ARD, as well as ZDF and radio station Deutschlandradio. 

Read more: Deutsche Welle marks 65th anniversary 

Prior to 2013, the fee was charged according to the number of radio, television or computer devices per household. However, this fee model became too difficult and intrusive to enforce. 

Since 2013, the fee has been levied regardless of the number of people in a household or whether the house or apartment has a television, computer device or radio. 

Commercial businesses are also charged for property and according to how many employees they have. They must also pay one-third of the licensing free for each car – an issue that has angered rental car companies.

Why is it controversial?  The plaintiffs argued that the fee amounts to a hidden tax imposed illegally by the German states through state treaties, and thereby oversteps their remit because they have no authority to levy taxes. In addition, at issue was the question of "equality before the law" in Germany's Basic Law, because the fee is not charged on actual use or the number of people using the service within a house.

A third question before the court was on the legality of charging the fee to commercial enterprises.

The sign outside the broadcasters' offices in Cologne
The sign outside the broadcasters' offices in CologneImage: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/C. Hardt

Read more: What is Germany's constitution, the 'Basic Law'? 

What was the court asked to rule on?  The court was not asked to rule on the legality of public service broadcasters or whether the fee itself is constitutional — that has already been accepted. Rather, the court ruled on how the fee is collected, that is, whether every household should be equally charged.

The court chose four representative complaints out of the many that have been lodged. Three were from private individuals and one was from the rental car company Sixt.

What did the court rule?  The court ruled that the fee can be charged per home or apartment because public broadcasting is "typically" used there. Indeed, that view is backed up by consumer research studies, which indicate that public broadcasting reaches 94 percent of people in Germany each week. 

The court also ruled that given that public broadcasting can be accessed by television, radio, computer, smartphones and tablets, it was not practical to charge per device.

Read more: Swiss vote to retain taxpayer funding for public broadcaster

It also found that even if a household does not use public broadcasting, they have a "realistic ability to use" it.

The court also said the legislature had "wide discretionary scope" to fix the monthly fee and that the rate was not excessive given the wide range of programming.

Commercial fees to stay

Lastly, the court confirmed the rules for commercial enterprises. In upholding the fee on commercial enterprises, the court said they also benefit from public broadcasting. 

For example, in the case of Sixt car rental, the court said those in cars benefit from traffic updates on the radio and can listen to public broadcasting. In addition, radio in the car is also factored into the price of the rental price and therefore Sixt benefits financially, the court said. 

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