Public Television, There and Here

(With updates below)

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in an upcoming interview in Fortune Magazine (courtesy of Salon):

[F]irst there are programs I would eliminate. Obamacare being one of them but also various subsidy programs — the Amtrak subsidy, the PBS subsidy, the subsidy for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some of these things, like those endowment efforts and PBS I very much appreciate and like what they do in many cases, but I just think they have to stand on their own rather than receiving money borrowed from other countries, as our government does on their behalf.

May I bang my head on the keyboard a few times before going on? (Other countries are subsidizing America’s paltry public TV? Can that even be true?)

A recent conversation about the European Soccer Championships led to a discussion about the differences in how television is funded in the US and in Germany. I had assumed that, being a public broadcaster, the Germany stations ARD and ZDF had some sort of deal worked out in which they had first dibs on major sporting events like the World Cup and the Olympics. No, I was told, they have the most money. The cable channels can’t compete.
This being the opposite of what I had expected, I did a little research on television stations in both countries. Let’s start with Germany’s public station, ARD. ARD has a budget of €6.3 billion (7.7 billion dollars), making it the second largest public broadcaster in the world, after the BBC. Their funding comes primarily from user fees (the dreaded Fernsehgebühr) currently around 22 dollars per month.
Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF, works in a similar fashion. My fee in Tyrol however is €23 ($28) per month. (Update: the prices are probably much closer. My fee includes radio and TV, and the German amount is the base price for only a radio.) Note that is is not in any way related to cable subscription, which costs something else again. On the other hand, there are no fees for satellite reception beyond the cost of the equipment, and internet TV is catching on. The Fersehgebühr is based not on usage but on whether you own a working tv or radio. The agency responsible for collecting the funds will show up at your door and sign you up. Yeah, there are stories of people hiding their TVs in the attic or what have you, but in these days of cable subscriptions and very visible satellite dishes, and the fact that every car has a radio in it, getting around this fee is unlikely.
(One could look at this as a kind of media tax, accompanied by assurances that your money is keeping Austrian public television of a higher quality than, say, Italy’s. Which I happen to be OK with, since we pay taxes on all sorts of things that we don’t directly use but which are for the good of the country. In my opinion American public television support should be increased significantly, not cut.)

Now, over to America. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives about 450 million dollars from federal appropriation, and its regional member stations hold regularly-scheduled televised fundraisers in order to shore up voluntary public donations.

7.7 billion dollars for public television in Germany (population 81 million). “Little” ORF (in Austria, population 8.4 million, less than that of New Jersey) gets 955 million euros ( 1.1 billion dollars).

And some American politicians, Romney among them, want to cut the measly less-than-500 million dollars for public television in the USA (population 311 million), that so-called leader of culture and freedom in the world.

I could not find quick information about the operating budgets of American network stations such as CBS, but I assume them to be in the many billions.

Update: a discussion with a friend brought up another issue: ARD imports certain US shows (crime series and sitcoms come to mind), just like PBS airs British TV shows. More money will not automatically raise quality level to pristine, but would level the playing field, as the public station could compete with the networks while still having to stick to its mission.

Update 2: I left out the fact that both ARD and ZDF have begotten many offspring, specialty channels which include Eins Festival and Eins Plus (ARD), and the three ZDF Neo, Info und Kultur channels. In addition there are two other excellent channels; 3Sat, which is a kind of aggregate of quality broadcasts from Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and the always wonderful arte channel, a half French, half German collaboration which promotes cultural programming. Between arte and ZDF Kultur, recent performances of operas and plays are not at all uncommon. I suppose this kind of think (thing! What an apt misspelling, though) wouldn’t fly in the States, which only saddens me. Like the state of the US highways, one remains content as long as one never realizes how much better it could be.

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