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Germany's complex public broadcasting system

August 16, 2022

The scandal around Patricia Schlesinger, former head of Berlin-based broadcaster RBB, has refocused attention on Germany's complicated network of public broadcasters. Here's how they're organized.

Logos of public broadcaster channels
Germany's public broadcasting system has a long history

The Patricia Schlesinger scandal, which has attracted the attention of state prosecutors, saw the RBB boss allegedly bill her publicly-funded employer for expensive catered meals in her private home, and facilitate a lucrative consultancy contract for her husband.

The scandal has been hugely damaging, and become an opportunity for populist politicians to resurrect one of their favorite issues: The overspending of public broadcasters. The far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) lost no time saying that the scandal showed that public broadcasters were "unreformable" and should be scrapped entirely.

But even the more level-headed voices among Germany's governing parties have called for broadcasters to be streamlined: Last year, the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) — a junior partner in Chancellor Olaf Scholz's coalition government — passed a resolution calling for the number of public TV and radio networks to be reduced. The proposal did not make it into the government coalition contract, however, and was criticized as "populist" by journalists' unions.

Patricia Schlesinger
The Patricia Schlesinger corruption scandal has put the spotlight on issues of financial oversightImage: Britta Pedersen/dpa/picture alliance

Regional dominance

But there are indeed a relatively large number of public broadcasters in Germany, including 21 TV channels and as many as 83 radio stations, funded mainly through the Rundfunkbeitrag levy (literally "broadcast contribution"). Currently set at €18.36 ($18.83) per month, each household in Germany is obliged to pay this fee, which brings in over €8 billion a year. While Deutsche Welle is also publicly funded, its budget comes directly from the federal government, rather than the Rundfunkbeitrag.

One reason for this great diversity is the regional origin of Germany's public broadcasting system: Following World War II, the western Allies reorganized the West German system in their respective occupation zones, creating NWDR in North Rhine-Westphalia (the British zone), SWF in south-west Germany (the French zone), and four stations in the American zone: for Bavaria (BR), southern Germany (SDR), Hesse (HR), and Bremen (RB).

Between 1946 and 1950, the Allies gradually handed over control of these fledgling regional broadcasters to Germans, and these six broadcasters became the founding members of the "Working group of public-law broadcasting institutions of the Federal Republic of Germany" (in German, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland) in June 1950 — a mouthful that was eventually abbreviated to ARD in 1954.

The six broadcasters also used as a model the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC. That is, they were designed to be independent of both the state and the private market and were specifically set up by the Allies to help reeducate the German public in democratic values.

The Allies also insisted that Germany's broadcasters should maintain a distance from the German government — something that worked rather too well for the taste of Germany's first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. Adenauer was known to be impatient with what he considered the ARD's critical attitude to his government, even suggesting in 1950 that the British had worked to put the ARD under the influence of his rival party, the center-left Social Democrats.

In fact, in 1959, Adenauer began planning the creation of a second public broadcaster that would be federally organized, rather than by the regional states. Adenauer's plan was deemed unconstitutional but eventually led to the creation in 1961 of the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen ("second German television," or ZDF), which was formed with a nationwide focus, though still administered at state level.

coins and public broadcaster logos on a broadcast levy letter head
The broadcast levy is paid by all households and businessImage: Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez/dpa/picture alliance


Even after 1950, the six ARD broadcasters were not organized centrally, and the chairmanship of the ARD was rotated among them every six months so that no single one could dominate. The ARD's TV channel (now officially called das Erste, "the First") began broadcasting in 1952, but its program was put together by the six regional broadcasters.

ARD has expanded steadily over the years, partly through splits. NWDR was split into NDR and WDR in 1955. The Saarländische Rundfunk was added in 1959, and Deutsche Welle and the Germany-wide radio broadcaster Deutschlandfunk joined as new members in 1962.

Germany's reunification in 1990 also brought new members, with the creation of the Ostdeutscher Rundfunk Brandenburg and the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk in 1991 and 1992 respectively, representing the new German regions.

Other broadcasters merged to streamline things: In 1998, two southern German broadcasters merged to form SWR, while in 2003, separate Berlin and Brandenburg broadcasters merged to become RBB, Schlesinger's former employer.

But the overall tendency has been to diversify, with niche channels being continually created within each broadcaster. On top of its news channel and its four standard radio stations, NDR, for example, has separate radio stations that cater to pop, classical, youth and alternative audiences. It even has a "Schlager" channel that plays the much-loved sentimental German pop music. In 1998, three regional public broadcasters — WDR, RBB, and Radio Bremen — combined to produce COSMO, the multicultural radio station intended to appeal to Germany's migrant communities.

Querdenker demonstrator holding up a sign reading 'Lügenpresse' - a term for lying (public) media
Far-right populists have been targeting public broadcastersImage: Daniel Kubirski/picture alliance

A new skepticism

At the same time, the role and financing of Germany's public broadcasters have been the subjects of constant debate throughout the decades. There was criticism of expensive prestige game shows like "Wetten, dass…?" ("You Bet…?"), whose star presenter Thomas Gottschalk was rumored to be receiving €100,000 per episode.

Criticism of the ARD's news coverage has accompanied almost every major crisis and in 2020, populist sentiment against the Rundfunkbeitrag caused a minor crisis when the state parliament in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt threatened to block the most recent increase (by 86 cents a month). This caused a row — since all 16 of Germany's state parliaments must approve any raise — which had to be resolved by Germany's Constitutional Court.

Hendrik Zörner, spokesman for the German Federation of Journalists (DJV), said that such developments were worrying. "What's clear is that the financing of public broadcasting in Germany is no longer taken for granted," he told DW.

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He added that public broadcasting is vital in times of social crisis. "We need good independent journalists who inform, explain, and offer background information," Zörner added. "And that's what the public broadcasters do and, in our opinion, that makes them more important than ever."

Trust in public media appears relatively stable. A long-term study carried out over the last five years by the University of Mainz, whose results are published annually, found that in 2020 some 70% of Germans trusted public broadcasters, a figure that has only ever wavered between 65% and 72% over the last five years.

That's partly down to the escalation of world crises, said Zörner. "When there are crises, some of which are of an existential nature, people turn to what offers independent information — namely, good journalism."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight