Do We Still Need Arte? Or License Fees?

Holger Kreitling in Die Welt has an amusing article (g) on Arte, the joint French-German public television channel. Arte is conceived as highbrow television, broadcasting classical concerts, operas, political debates, and documentaries on everything from Claude Sautet to Heidegger to the Thirty Years' war to Bolivian street artists to (as Kreitling puts it) obscure Slovenian bread-making techniques. It is financed by compulsory TV fees (administered by a company called the GEZ in German), yet never attracts more than a tiny fraction of highbrow viewers. As Kreitling notes, a member of the German or French urban haute bourgeoisie is required to announce his social position by declaring either that he has no television, or if he does, that all he watches is Arte. But even for all its failings and occasional pretentiousness, Kreitling still likes it.

And so do I. The only problem is the political programming, which is tiresomely left-wing. There's nothing more superfluous than holding a "theme evening" on Trump's first 100 days on Arte. Every person watching Arte already despises Trump, so all of the Trump-critical documentaries and interviews will have no effect. That's true of all the debate and political programming as well. I am not happy to pay mandatory licensing fees to sponsor the same old debates by the same aging hippies about "the future of ecological Europe" or what have you ("Red Danny" seems to be on every second time I switch to Arte), but I think there's a good case to be made for challenging music and arts programming. I don't have kids but I'm happy to pay taxes for schools because that's part of a healthy and thriving society. People who find classical music and museums boring should still pay taxes to keep them going for the same reason.

But the money should come from general taxes, not the outdated TV licensing fees that so many countries, including Germany, still use as a funding model. There is already a growing revolt against these fees (currently € 17.50 a month), which even includes prison martyrs (g) — people who refuse to pay the fees on principle and who are eventually sent to jail to serve time as a result. Technically, you don't have to pay the fee if you don't own a TV or radio or any comparable device, but the regulations on this point are baffling to most mortals.

There is endless online debate (g) about how far the government can go to determine whether you are receiving any form of broadcast programming which would trigger the fees. If Agents of GEZ™ knock at your door, which they are wont to do, do you have to let them in? The GEZ itself is a massive and expensive government bureaucracy as are all the myriad public television stations which it finances. This is the point where GEZ-defenders will step in and say "but it's not technically a government agency!" They're right, the GEZ is more of a Quango, but nobody really cares about this distinction. The bottom line is if they determine you have to pay the fees, and they don't, they will sic a team of lawyers on you, and you might well end up in prison.

All this money and bureaucracy might be OK if you got a BBC from it, but Germans definitely don't. The quality of the public television programming in Germany is the target of near-universal scorn. Everyone hates something about public TV: The urban haute bourgeoisie hates the folk-music and Schlager festivals and the exploitative shows made to compete with private-TV soap operas and scandal-fests. Conservatives hate what they see as the stifling one-sided political correctness of news coverage and talk shows. Everyone (including me) considers the vast bulk of German TV drama or comedy shows unwatchable.

It should come as no surprise 70% of Germans oppose the TV license fees (g). Seventy percent. That's a pretty high number in a democracy. Granted, when entrenched bureaucratic and governmental interests favor a policy — and they most certain favor a continuation of fee-based public TV — that policy can go on forever in Germany. Just think of the Euro, which was introduced over the opposition of 3/4 of the German population. Currently only the right-wing AfD party has staked out a clear position (g) in favor of abolishing the TV fee. Once again, the German "opinion cartel" funnels voters to the right wing: If you are one of the 70 percent of Germans who opposes the TV fee, the AfD is the only party which openly shares your view.

Fee TV is a zombie policy. You can either wait until it falls apart, or you can drive a stake through it now. Knowing Germany, they'll probably opt for the former. It'll be a pretty ugly process.

10 thoughts on “Do We Still Need Arte? Or License Fees?

  1. This article needs updating. GEZ doesn’t exist anymore (since 2013). The respective entity is now called “ARD ZDF Deutschlandradio Beitragsservice”. And the friendly agents (aka “Rundfunkgebührenbeauftragte”) have been made redundant in the restructuring process.

    And to put things in perspective, quite a few other European countries have a similar broadcast receiving fee: Austria, Switzerland, Finland, UK, Belgium and France, to name just a few.


  2. Yeah, nobody cares about those details, the new name is confusing and way too long with no possible abbreviation, and everyone still calls it the GEZ.

    The fee system is a relic in all those other countries, too. 70% of French people think the redevance audiovisuelle is too expensive.

    The idea of TV fees stems from a period waaaaay back in the middle of the 20th century in which the idea was that televisions and radios were luxury goods available only to a few. Therefore, it would be unfair for *everyone* to finance a mode of entertainment available only to a few.

    That was 70 freaking years ago. The model was already totally outdated and cumbersome by 1970, when everyone had a TV. Now it’s *double-outdated* by Youtube and on-demand streaming.

    TV licenses are unpopular almost everywhere they still exist because the notion of a “national” programmer fulfilling its mission to educated the masses is outdated and irrelevant. There’s still a place for public television, but it’s so small that it can easily be supported from general tax revenues.


  3. A popular comment when my (tax-payer funded) public broadcaster annoys people is: “I want my 9 cents back.”
    To paraphrase, “the bunch of self-righteous bludgers aren’t worth the 6 euro cents’ tax that I was forced to contribute today.”


  4. Arte Kanal came to the Deutsches Haus (2103 Nueces, ATX) during SXSW a couple years ago.

    They had posted something on FB on the Deutsches Haus page. I went by and tried to get on the panel. I did sit on the Sofa and say a couple things as they filmed, but never found out if we made the cut. I am guessing not.


  5. I beg to differ. The public mission is not irrelevant and you cannot expect “balanced” (yeah, AfD-voters, laugh all you want) reporting from a profit-oriented news channel. I think the fees still serve a purpose. If financed from general tax revenues only, public television budget would gradually be cut to the bone, and quality would diminish even further.


  6. Since the tabloids and many private TV channels are leaning to the right, it’s good to have a counterbalance, don’t you think? And if you don’t like the public TV channels, go and check out the private ones. That would turn even you into a supporter of the GEZ. People forget that both ARD and ZDF have a varied offer of digital channels, ranging from nature documentaries to music. You wouldn’t get that kind of a selection if you’d be dependent on a commercial income. By the way, I’ve met many Americans who admired the quality of those mentioned digital channels, and who said that this wouldn’t be possible without public funding. I’d agree that there should be an “opt-out” for the people who don’t watch TV at all, though.

    And if I may add this: In as much as you find Arte too left-wing, your political articles are getting tiresomely right-wing. If I remember correctly, you once described yourself as a social democrat. Is that still true or have you changed you opinions in the past months? Your recent political articles railed against, among other things, immigration, political correctness, a supposed German guilt complex, the European welfare states, “globalism” (whatever that means) and left-wing parties in general. Judging by that, I’d rather think you’re a Ron Paul supporter. You’ve got much time for AfD politicians, yet I’ve never seen you defending people like Gregor Gysi or Katja Kipping. I wouldn’t call that balanced writing either.


  7. Andrew have you ever watched the BBC? ARTE is like 1970s BBC2 and I have to switch over to the German public broadcasters on satellite to find something half decent to watch. 90% of BBC TV output is geared to those with an IQ below 100. Meanwhile it is the liberal establishment’s chief attack dog against those who challenge the Blairite consensus i.e Corbyn and UKIP. Most parents around the world have to worry about their children being exposed to scenes of sex and violence on TV. With me I have to worry about my kids being indoctrinated with the BBCs politically correct view of the world. How about this pitch for an episode from their series “The Dumping Ground” set in a childrens home. “Kazima fails her age assessment and so the immigration authorities want to send her back to Somalia. The Dumping Ground must rally to help her any way they can.” At least KIKA still puts out material on a Sunday morning with a Christian theme,


  8. Good luck to Andrew and I hope he keeps going with this blog. His views seems to match those of my German friends. However I would not be surprised if his non “Der Spiegel” view of the world upsets somebody and he is deported from Germany as an undesirable alien. In a same way Dr Michael Savage is banned from entering the UK.


  9. I think our friend Benway is missing the point here. It may or may not be the case that the comericial media are moving to the right, although from where I sit on my English sofa, I would say it is more towards a bland and unthinking globalisation, viz the once intellectually rigourous Economist and FT.

    However, I fail to see why I should be forced to support a more left wing media through a levy on my ability to receive terrestrial or satellite television. There are still interesting and instructive programmes on BBC, though rather more on the radio. But the BBC news coverage is a joke. In order to find out what is actually happening in England, it is necessary to look at other media not based in UK. They are always the last to report anything other than major events,, that is where less than three people are attacked in the name of ……. Well you can fill that in yourself.

    The studio audiences for any form of political or current affairs program are blatantly recruited to reflect the right on liberal establishment view, and the so called comedies like the News Quia have now minuscule audiences, as they have become nothing but anti Tory rants. Still attacking Thatcher! For heavens sake, she’s been dead for four years,. but it doesn’t matter, as they are not commercial, they don’t have to be popular or even interesting. They get paid anyway.

    As for the foreign coverage, it is so sanitised as to be deliberately misleading. The BBC were I believe the last channel to inform us about the New Years attacks in Cologne. The ethnicity of any attacker is never mentioned, unless by a fortunate chance they happened to be white and have a traditionally British name.

    I fail to see how this is public service broadcasting, or why I should subsidise it.


  10. Agreed however it is not as bad as Jon Snow’s “Channel 4 News”, the number one purveyor of fake news in the UK. I wonder if the fellow who they libelled as being responsible for the attack on Westminster Bridge is going to sue them? He may be a nut but he is no mass murderer. So strange for such a politically correct organisation.


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