Publishers and public broadcasters end years of dispute over online content – and set up an arbitration board.
How happy they are! From left to right: Mathias Dopfner, Rainer Haseloff, Malu Dreyer, Ulrich Wilhelm, Thomas Bellut, Stefan Raue Photo: dpa
Mathias Dopfner wants to put the words "state broadcasting" and "North Korea" on file. The Springer board member has used these words several times recently to describe public broadcasting – in the dispute over whether the online services of ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandradio are taking users away from newspapers. For years, Dopfner, as president of the Federal Association of German Newspaper Publishers (BDZV), has waged this dispute against the broadcasters, especially ARD. On Thursday, both parties have now announced: We are in agreement.
The Interstate Broadcasting Treaty stipulates that public service online offerings – i.e., websites and apps – must not look like the offerings of publishers in the same medium. In the process, specific regulations are dispensed with.
"Years of bickering over letters have been replaced by constructive cooperation," said Malu Dreyer (SPD), chairwoman of the Broadcasting Commission of the German states, at the presentation of the amendment agreement in Berlin on Thursday. For years, the BDZV has bickered with individual broadcasters, sometimes in court, over apps and websites and their text content. It started with the 2011 court battle over the "Tagesschau" app. The BDZV was bothered by the fact that broadcasters offer a similar product with broadcasting fees as the press. That’s why, says Dopfner, publishers can’t sell more online subscriptions.
What is now being celebrated as a huge breakthrough in the world of media politics seems rather petty from the point of view of readers and viewers. Nevertheless, the fact that the years-long dispute has been settled allows us to look at more important issues concerning the future of broadcasting.
The states put pressure on
The state premiers had urged that the dispute finally be settled. The heads of the federal states, who together form the Broadcasting Commission of the federal states, wanted to draft an amendment to the Interstate Broadcasting Treaty at the beginning of the year, in which an agreement was to be stipulated. This failed because the parties did not come closer together. On the contrary, in January NDR filed a constitutional complaint against a decision by the Federal Court of Justice in the "Tagesschau" app case. Despite the agreement, this will now be examined further for the time being, because a constitutional complaint cannot simply be withdrawn again.
There are no precise rules on what the web services of ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandfunk may look like in the future. In somewhat vague terms, the amendment agreement states that telemedia "shall be designed with a focus on moving images and sound, whereby text shall not be the main focus. Clear rules, such as those already being considered – for example, that broadcasts may consist of a maximum of one-third text – are "formalistic and not true to life," Dopfner said. The peaceful negotiators want to agree "in spirit" on what is meant: users should be able to tell at first glance whether the website or app they are calling up comes from a broadcaster or a publisher. In the event that they disagree, the new Interstate Broadcasting Treaty provides for an arbitration board.
Websites and apps may no longer look like the offerings of publishers. There are no concrete criteria for this
Ominous "arbitration board
Exactly what this body will look like is not yet entirely clear. For now, Dopfner and ARD head Ulrich Wilhelm have signed on. In case of emergency, "an external person who enjoys the trust of both sides" will be added, according to BR’s legal advisor Albrecht Hesse. The goal is to avoid disputes in court and to have a short line of communication.
The establishment of the arbitration board has met with criticism from Tabea Robner, media policy spokeswoman for the Green Party in the Bundestag. "It cannot be that there is an arbitration board of press representatives who decide on the execution of the public service mandate," Robner told the taz. The Green politician fears that the private sector, in the form of publishers, will increase its influence on constitutionally guaranteed broadcasting in this way. "I think that is a very wrong signal that weakens the public broadcasters."
The pacified parties to the dispute, on the other hand, couldn’t stress enough how united they suddenly were. "We have established that the opponent stands elsewhere," said Reiner Haseloff (CDU), the minister president of Saxony-Anhalt. It’s about being able to counter Google and Netflix, but also platforms with questionable journalistic quality.
You don’t have to think that tagesschau.de’s "press resemblance" is the root evil that keeps publishers from being digitally successful. But one can be pleased that the dispute has now been settled – if only because it means that larger issues can potentially be addressed. Public broadcasting is struggling for legitimacy. Almost everywhere in Europe, it is being questioned by right-wing parties and movements. The broadcasting fee is as unpopular as ever. And last but not least, ARD, ZDF and Deutschlandfunk still reach too few viewers in the younger, net-savvy age groups. Now that it has been clarified that the broadcasters will not have to do without longer texts on the Internet – which is fundamental, for example, in order to be found by search engines – new offerings can be devised for the future. It should not be forgotten, however, that broadcasters still have to economize.
"Indexing" dispute continues
This week, however, there was no clarification on another future topic, where this time it is not the press and broadcasting, but the federal states that are fighting among themselves: the question of who determines the amount of the broadcasting fee. For the meeting of the Broadcasting Commission on Wednesday, six German states submitted a rather radical proposal at short notice: the broadcasting fee will be linked to inflation, it will simply rise with prices. The principle is called "indexation," and the proposal comes from Bavaria, Schleswig-Holstein, Baden-Wurttemberg, Thuringia, Hamburg and Saxony. The states also want broadcasters to be relatively free to decide on their budgets, instead of having to apply for each line item in a complicated procedure every four years, as they do now.
This upset the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, which traditionally chairs the Broadcasting Commission. The state immediately submitted a counter-proposal to stay with the current system. It was not possible to reach agreement on Wednesday, Commission Chairwoman Dreyer now said, but the issue should be concluded by the end of the year.
If the broadcasting contribution were indexed, the minister presidents would no longer have to decide unanimously every four years how high the contribution should be set – a calculation formula would do it for them. However, the Commission for Determining Financial Requirements (KEF), which currently decides on the appropriate level of the contribution, would also have to be redesignated or abolished. The trade-off is a simplification of the system against the constitutionally guaranteed control of the public service mission.