Mapping Digital Media: German Public Service Broadcasting and Online Activity

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The Mapping Digital Media project examines the global opportunities and risks created by the transition from traditional to digital media. Covering 60 countries, the project examines how these changes affect the core democratic service that any media system should provide: news about political, economic, and social affairs.

Few countries support public service broadcasting more enthusiastically than Germany, where the public service broadcasters (PSBs) are seen as more informal, modern, and entertaining than before, without having lost their reputation for quality. The combined budgets of all the PSBs far exceed the combined advertising revenue of private broadcasters.

Yet the PSBs face a demographic threat. Around half of their viewers are over 65 years old, while only 5 percent are under 30. If the PSBs are to safeguard their future, they must attract younger audiences. This means developing services online. At the same time, following private-sector complaints, the European Commission decided the license fee was distorting competition.

The PSBs responded with a public value test to assess new services. Debate in this context has centered on two crucial questions: whether or not internet portals and online products fall within the remit of public service broadcasting, and whether PSBs should be allowed to compete for advertising with private media.

In this paper, Johannes Weberling explains the German search for an equitable balance between public and private media interests online, in the light of European Union concerns over state aid.