Rundfunkbeitrag Germans pay too much for too many public broadcasters

Independent media is vital to a functioning democracy, but Germany's state-funded system has become bloated and too expensive, writes Handelsblatt's Catrin Bialek.
No way around it.

Many ex-pats are shocked to discover that every German household has to pay a monthly fee for a flotilla of state-backed broadcasters. In its current state, it's a system no one in their right minds would devise to provide a country with independent news reports and well-founded opinions.

Why not? Because the system has ballooned over decades to include 22 television stations, 67 radio stations, dozens of online portals and about 25,000 employees. Oh, and a budget of €8 billion a year, which its executives complain isn't enough to keep it aloft.

But that’s the reality in Germany, as well as the loud and constant moaning about the system's fees. The €17.50 ($20.65) monthly Rundfunkbeitrag – the broadcasting fee that's commonly referred to as GEZ, the old name of the agency that collects it – is the supposed price of ensuring Germany's democratic stability and covering the billions in costs.

But not everyone agrees, and some who don’t, sued.

Once again, the GEZ will be reviewed by a court of law. For two days, the Federal Constitutional Court will consider lawsuits of three private individuals and Sixt, the car rental company. As a merchant, the Munich-based company has to pay on behalf of its fleet.

This spring, after Switzerland decided to uphold the financing of its public broadcasting in a referendum, Germany's GEZ opponents got a boost with the latest constitutional challenge. Burning issues include: How much publicly funded broadcasting does a society need? And what would a subsidized system need to look like to fit into the rapidly changing modern media landscape, where American providers such as Netflix, Amazon, and Facebook are gaining ground?

The fee is like a hospitality tax: You pay for the opportunity, not the consumption.

The first and foremost question is whether federal states had the right to pass the relevant laws. The claimants say the fee violates the principle of equality, and that levying the fee by household rather than by device (TVs or computer screens) is unconstitutional.

In 2010, when the fee was restructured to focus on households, former constitutional judge Paul Kirchhof wrote an expert opinion on the new rules. The lawyer compared the broadcast fee with a hospitality tax: People can take advantage of these services, be it fresh air by the sea or quality information on their screens, but they don't have to. The opportunity is taxed, not the actual consumption.

That's a nice idea. Just as people don't want to visit shabby coastlines, preferring instead to accept the costs and benefits of beautiful seaside resorts, they shouldn't be deprived of the chance to view quality programs. The main job of institutions such as ARD and ZDF is to offer quality content that would not otherwise be available.

Does it really make sense for the private sector and publicly funded institutions to compete for the same cash?

The reality, however, is completely different. On one hand, why there must be two state-funded stations, ARD and ZDF – isn't one enough? And does this rivalry actually benefit anyone other than a few politicians?

The content of publicly funded programs should also be questioned - but not by bureaucrats trying to keep themselves in cushy jobs. Why not weed the programs and rid them of expensive shows, series and sporting events? Both ARD and ZDF have programs where it's difficult to spot any socio-political contribution. The same content, moreover, might be offered by private broadcasters and end up just as good, if not better.

Then there's a matter of advertising. Does it really make sense for the private sector and publicly funded institutions to compete for the same advertising cash? The result is quantity goes before quality.

The core service of state-run broadcasting is providing information. Enlightened citizens are a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Program creators should concentrate on their material with this function in mind. This is especially important today, where at social media like Facebook and Twitter, anyone can become a broadcaster. These days, companies and politicians are in the position to manage their own coverage.

After these days in court, if Germany's state-run broadcasters can somehow emerge as truly beneficial, cost-effective organizations, viewers will be more gracious when they're asked to shell out their hard-earned cash.

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