An Actress's Thoughts

The Standards for Public Broadcasting

The Standards for Public Broadcasting

Today it is all about public service broadcasting, its mandate according to the Interstate Broadcasting Treaty and the broadcasting commissions that are there to control the implementation. Is it guaranteed that the programmes of ARD (German channel 1) and ZDF (German channel 2) live up to the expectations? In addition we will look at the members of the ZDF broadcasting commission and three examples from the ZDF television programme: SPORTS, MURDERS and SHOWS.

What? This is being financed by my TV licence fees?“ this is something that most of us have heard before or even exclaimed ourselves, when others or we were unhappty with public service television programmes. „Are they allowed to do that?!“

The legal basis for public television in Germany

The right of free speech, freedom of press and arts, and the ban on censorship of course also apply to the makers of public TV, based on article 5 of the German Grundgesetz / Basic Law. On top of this there are some more specific laws and regulations, first of all the Interstate Broadcasting Treaty IBT (Rundfunkstaatsvertrag). Its § 11 is all about the mandate of public television (financed through television licence fees):

(1) It is the duty of Public-Service Broadcasting to function as means of public opinion formation and thus meet the democratic, social and cultural needs of society. It should give a comprehensive overview on international, European, national and regional events in all essential areas of life.
(2) The Broadcasting Corporations must respect basic principles of objectivity and impartiality in reporting, and consider diversity of opinion as well as a fair balance in their programmes
. (§ 11 IBT)

In addition both German public channels ARD (1) and ZDF (2) have interstate treaties of their own, the ARD Interstate Treaty / ARD IT, that treats the joint TV programme “Das Erste” (the first) of all broadcasting corporations of the states of Germany, and the ZDF Interstate Treaty / ZDF IT, that deals with the programme of the ZDF. The ZDF IT is much more detailed than that of the ARD (33 as opposed to 9 paragraphs) and deals with the “presentation of the programmes.”

(1) The programmes of the ZDF should communicate a comprehensive picture of German reality. The programmes are to boost free individual and public formation of opinions.
(2) The programme should reflect the events in the individual states of Germany and the cultural diversity in Germany
(3) The programmes are to especially boost the togetherness in a unified Germany as well as to serve integration of society as a whole in peace and freedom and the understanding among the peoples and to work towards a togetherness of people free of discrimination.

There is no special mention of women, but they are probably included in some aspect or other.

On paper all people in Germany, i.e. the 41.7 mio. women and the 40.3 mio. men are equal (article 3 of the Basic Law) – but their realities in society still differ considerably. This is something the state acknowledges in the second passage of article 3 Basic Law:

Article 3: Equality before the Law
(2) Men and women shall have equal rights. The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate disadvantages that now exist.

In some respect the fictional programmes on public television are a continuation of this disadvantage through other means. Of course fictional programmes, i.e. television movies, mini series, series etc. are just that, fictional, made-up, invented. Feature films are no documentaries of everyday life, no chronicle of surveillance cameras. Instead they tell exceptional, remarkable, unique stories that happened, could have happened or might happen, in the positive or negative sense (anything between romance and horror thriller), they transform visions of the future into film (science ficion, utopias, dystopias), they provide invented plots.
But there is no automatic reason for these invented stories to have to deal primarily with men and no reason for women to become a marginal group and minority. In this context I am calling it a retro reality, something that can be described via three parameters:

  • 1 to 2 (far fewer female than male roles).
  • 40minus (disappearance of female characters oldern than 40).
  • 1950s (outdated gender stereotypes and schmonzification).

How could this happen in the light of the already described mandate of public broadcasting that ASKS them to provide a a comprehensive picture of German reality as well as work towards integration of society as a whole in peace and freedom and the understanding among the peoples and a togetherness of people free of discrimination?

Demand and Reality – who is failing to pay attention?

The public broadcasting corporations are headed by „Intendanten“ and „Intendantinnen“ – that corresponds with the Director General of the BBC for example. ARD, a joint organization of Germany’s nine regional public-service broadcasters, has nine Directors General: Ulrich Wilhelm (BR, since Feb 1, 2011), Dr. Helmut Reitze (HR, since Jan 13, 2003), Karola Wille (MDR, since Nov. 1, 2011), Lutz Marmor (NRD, since Jan 13, 2008), Jan Metzger (Radio Bremen, since Aug 1, 2009), Dagmar Reim (RBB, since May 1, 2003), Thomas Kleist (SR, since July 1, 2011), Peter Boudgoust (SWR, since May 1, 2007) and Tom Buhrow (WDR, since July 1, 2013).

ZDF, „Das Zweite“ / channel 2 has one Director General, Dr. Thomas Bellut (since March 15, 2012). Before moving up to this position he held the position of program director, his successor, Dr. Norbert Himmler started work on April 1, 2012.

The ZDF Interstate Treaty (§ 27) defines that the director general is responsible „for all business of the ZDF including the composition of the programmes“. It is he who appoints the program director and other positions, in consultation with the Verwaltungsrat / board of administration.

9 broadcasting commissions for the ARD (called Rundfunkräte) and 1 for the ZDF (called Fernsehrat) are officially watching over the way the broadcasting corporations are complying with their mandates and how they are applying it in their programming. These commissions act both as supervisory bodies and as representation of society.

On the website of the broadcasters we find (in German): „For all Rundfunkräte / public broadcasting corporations the Broadcasting Commissions are the representation of the general public and the highest assigned body for programme control“ (ARD) and „The Fernsehrat / broadcasting commission assumes its task on behalf of society and is to express the plurality of opinion in society“ (ZDF).

Who is actually representing our society?

I will write about the 9 broadcasting commissions of the ARD in the near future, today’s focus will bei on the ZDF-Fernsehrat (broadcasting commission for the ZDF). This body which should be representing society consists of 22 women and 55 men (a ratio of 1 to 2.5), who should negotiate and decide “in the spirit of the audience“, “establish guidelines for the programs of the ZDF and advise the director general in questions regarding the programme“ (§ 20, ZDF Interstate Broadcasting Treaty). The body meets four times per year, Ruprecht Polenz is the current elected chairperson.


The last group in this table, the “Other”, is officially called “Educational System, Sciences, Art, Culture, Film Industry, Independent Professions, Family Work, Child Welfare, Youth Work, Consumer Protection and Animal Protection” and commands 16 seats in the council. Nearly half (10) of all female members of the broadcasting commission can be found here. Unfortunately the information on the ZDF webpage does not go as far as explaining how the representatives for the Other group are selected.


The largest group in the broadcasting commission are politions bzw. state representatives. Alle 16 Länder / States of Germany are represented by men, who are state secretaries, ministers, regional chairmen of political parties. This is quite remarkable since all 16 German state parliaments have female MPs as well, all state governments include female ministers, and four states have female ,prime ministers’: North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, Thuringia). So why only male representatives for the states, could this be a mere coincidence?

The federal state is represented by 3 politicians, and then there are of course 12 representatives of political parties. Also in the group of “others“ we find 6 politicians. Of course politicians and people working for the state, i.e. members of the legislative and executive power, are also members of the general public and part of the TV audience. But it is indeed quite remarkable that nearly one half of the 76 persons body are politicians – as opposed to them not accounting for half the society. Women on the other hand are indeed half of the population, but in this body they are just a sorry third.

All is well?

The broadcasting commissions are a control body that should express the diversity of opinions in society, whetzer they are composed in a really representative way or not. But how do they actually work? Do they hold sufficient competences and do they fully use their possibilities? After every meeting of the commission there is a press conference and press releases that generally give the impression of amicable agreements. But maybe the commissioners do discuss topics controversially, modify decisions by the ZDF officials, question programs and productions, and even propose new programme ideas? This is certainly something worth finding out.

But now finally for today three examples from the ZDF, where past or future activites by members of the broadcasting commission would be highly appreciated. The excess of male roles on TV and retro reality in fictional programmes won’t be topics today, instead let’s look at SPORTS, MUDERS and SHOWS.

SPORTS: A) very expensive, and B) very much a men’s thing

The share of sports shows in the main programme of the ZDF from 2010 to 2013 made up something between 5,7 and 7,4 %, with average costs of 227 mio. € per year. (source: ZDF). The costs for 2014 will probably be much higher.

Of the mentioned 227 mio. € an average of 171 mio. were paid for rights of use / transmission rights for televised sports events, that is 62 %. A large part of that are transmissions rights for the football champions’ league (CL) – the men’s, for these the ZDF pays some 50 mio. € per year since the 2012/13 season, the contract has just been extended untio 2017/18. Before the ZDF bought the rights all matches were shown on Sat1, a free TV channel. ZDF director general Thomas Bellut justified buying theses rights by his plan to get a larger audience for the „heute journal“, a news broadcast that was scheduled for the half-time period. This is a strange concept, since it is quite probable that people who watch a football match use the break to go to the kitchen or bathroom. And also, why spend so much public money on something that was available in Free TV already anyway.

To put the CL transmission fee into perspective, for 50 mio. € the ZDF produces:

  • 125 episodes of ZDF series (45 min.) between 6 and 8 pm, with average production costs of 400.000 € for 45 minutes
  • more than 35 ZDF TV movies at 8.15 pm, average costs per film 1.4 mio. €
  • 31 Saturday night event shows of 150 min. length, average productions costs 1,6 Mio. €
  • 208 big prime time documentaries („ZDFzeit“), average costs 240.000 €.
  • half the daily news and information magazines on ZDF, which cost 102 mio. € per year.

How do the members of the broadcasting commissions feel about the high spendings on the CL matches? Did they agree unanimously or at least by the majority? Were they asked to consent with buying the extension of the transmission rights? What are the powers of the comissions?

But let us look at another very expensive TV football example:

This year the men’s football world championship took place in Brazil. Both German public TV corporations, ARD and ZDF, reported on that extensively, ahead of the event, during it, and after it was over. All matches were transmitted on live TV, with hours before and after full of analysis and stories to go with it.

ARD and ZDF had most probably paid very large sums of money for the World Cup transmission rights. Because of weird politics they had to buy their free TV rights in a package together with the rights for pay TV. Unfortunately and probably for a number of reasons they did not manage to sell the pay TV rights to another channel. SKY TV were not interested, probably because of the bigger than large coverage planned for public TV. So in the end ARD and ZDF paid yet even more than planned.

One other aspect of the world cup coverage is quite troublesome and should be criticized, and that is the absence of women. Yes indeed, all match commentators were male, and all the experts that discussed the matches, the teams and the tactics, former football players etc, they were all male as well. It is not very difficult to find female experts, former or current players of the national team that were world champions or are European champions at the moment – for the 6th time since 1995. But for some reason they were not invited.

So what did the members of the broadcasting commission have to say afterwards, to this ignorance of female journalists and experts? Did they discuss or even criticise the millions spent and the way the whole world cup programme was presented? Did anybody talk about the people in Germany who are not interested in football, and even loads of football fans that just want to watch the matches but not endless discussions and atmospherical reports on football fans and national teams. Football fans, who even might want to see other programmes, feature films, documentaries, political magazines etc. during those 4 weeks? Or did the director general, the programme director and the 2/3 male members of the broadcasting commission simply agree that football is king and there simply cannot be enough football programmes on public TV, no matter how high the costs?

Crimes on TV: Larger than Real Life

The highest TV ratings on German fictional TV are regularly achieved by TATORTE (crime scene), the sunday evening programme on ARD. Of course ZDF cannot simply buy these shows, but they can produce crime films of their own, and crime series, and cop dramas and and and. Very often, once a crime series is successfull, one or more similar series may be created. So instead of just having the SOKO 5113 (an ongoing series, broadcast since 1976), we now have SOKO WISMAR, SOKO KÖLN, SOKO LEIPZIG, SOKO KITZBÜHEL, SOKO STUTTGART and so on. (SOKO is the abreviation for Sonderkommission, special commission).

ZDF and ZDFneo, another digital public channel, broadcast crime stories at all times of the day and the night. German and internation and co-productions. 90 min. feature films and series, and repeats.

I checked the TV programme for the 34th week (August 18-24, 2014) and found 26 German and 10 international and 1 co-produced fictional crime programme. In the same week on ZDFneo there were 52 crime films, 19 German, 32 internationla and 1 co-produced. So we have a total of 37 + 52 = 89 in a week, crime films, crime episodes. 45 were German productions.

On a low estimate let us assume that there is an average of one murder taking place in the films and episodes, so ZDF and ZDFneo together screen more than 12 murders daily. On top of that we also get crime films in ARD and the third programmes, not least the new TATORTE and their repeats.

It is remarkable how many stories on television are being told through crime stories. Is there a lack of other ideas, or is it simply safer, to go along with the trend?

And what’s it like in real life? According to police statistics there were 2.126 murders in 2012, that is an average of 40 weekly and just under 6 every day. So fortunately far less than those we get presented by public television day after day.

Is this something that broadcasting commissions discuss? Do they talk about this, when yet another new SOKO is being presented? Do they question why there are so many crime stories under the header “TV movie of the week? (Of the 46 films in 2013 in this group, 15 were crime stories and 17 were thrillers. (TV Movies of the Week on ZDF)

So maybe they do discuss these questions thoroughly in the ZDF broadcasting commission. But what effects does this have? And without them would we get even more crime films on TV? Or is everybody happy with the official programme suggestions and the comission just goes along with everything?

One quick comment on ZDFneo.

As we could see, ZDFneo screens even more crime films than ZDF: 52 opposed to 37, among those were two daily episodes each of MAGNUM (US TV series, 1980-1988) and CHARLIE’S ANGELS (US TV series, 1976-1981). This is remarkable, because according to its own standards, ZDFneo represents “intelligent and entertaining television for an audience between 25 and 49 years, that gets into attractive international series, inventive shows, true-to-life reports and documentaries. On ZDFneo the audience finds charismatic, inspiring and passionate characters and experiences true and catching stories.
ZDFneo is lots of fun and offers ambitious entertainment.”

SHOWS: Right or Wrong, My Ratings

A few months ago there was a scandal with some rating shows on ZDF that was all over the media: the shows „GERMANY’S BEST MEN and GERMANY’S BEST WOMEN had been manipulated deliberately. A number of men and women were given higher positions than they held after the public votings, to make appearing on the show more attractive to them.

In a ZDF press release from July 7, 2014 we read „ZDF will not continue the shows GERMANY’S BEST and will suggest measures to the programme committee to prevent a repitition of what happened“. Who exactly is to suggest these measures is not quite clear, but it will probably be ZDF director general Thomas Bellut. He said in an interview with David Denk for the Süddeutsche Zeitung from July 25, 2014: „Everything that was decided, was decided by me“.

To repeat, this is of course in accordance with § 27 of the ZDF Interstate treaty: “The director general is responsible for all business of the ZDF including the composition of the programmes“, but of course as also mentioned before the broadcasting commission should “express the plurality of opinion in society“ and to “advise the director general in questions regarding the programme“ (§ 20). But is this really happening? And if yes, to what effect?

Incidentally, the NDR (one of the regional broadcasting corporations of the ARD for the north of Germany) had its own scandal over manipulation of ranking shows. There the rankings based on votes by the audience were changed afterwards to “achieve a better dramaturgy for the show and to be able to use more appealing photo material“ (Zapp, Aug 8, 14).

Manipulating votes and elections is of course always bad. When it happens in connection with public television it is maybe even more astonishing, because they are financed by the public and are not dependent on selling time for commercials, as the private corporations do (For Heaven’s Sake, Look at the Ratings!). But of course I don’t mean to suspect private TV of manipulations.

The ZDF Interstate treaty (§ 3) even includes a passage that can be read as being clearly against giving in to the pressures of the TV ratings race: “The ZDF may not primarily buy, produce or have produced TV formats with the aim of economic exploitation.“

Horizontal instead of Vertical

All three examples – SPORTS, MURDERS and SHOWS – have one thing in common: they were motivated by getting high TV ratings at all costs.

That is to say that the efforts go to getting the highest possible ratings for one programme or one set, a sport event, a big show etc, instead of working for a diverse and well-balanced programme for different parts of the audience, within 24 hours or a week. 4 weeks of excessive football related shows, 89 crimes stories in one week, that does not appear to be very complex.

It would be good idea if the members of the comission emancipate and stick up for more broadness, instead of nodding through all concepts and investments by the broadcasting corporations for higher rating peaks.

Over to you, dear Commissioners!