German Television 

12 April 2024


Cover of The Listener

From The Listener, dated 23 October 1969

A new pattern is beginning to emerge in the television services of the three big Common Market countries. Italian television is going through its biennial change of life: it’s a familiar happening, with staff at all levels moving through the revolving door. Everyone shuttles around; no one is fired; outwardly, it doesn’t look very different. But this time, they say, it will be different. French television is facing a new challenge on the news front: real news uncensored. A heady period is in prospect if the French Prime Minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, goes through with his plan to give ORTF total autonomy over its own affairs. Independence for the news is at least a good start. When so much news in the past had to be fitted in to suit the government, it is perhaps a sensible decision to set up two television news services in competition with each other.

What is undoubtedly a brilliant move is the appointment of Pierre Desgraupes as head of one of these news services, the influential and important one on the first network. Desgraupes was the man behind the best television programme in France, Cinq Colonnes â l’Une, a two to three hour version of Panorama. That programme ended during the May troubles last year: Desgraupes was one of those who finally found the state’s interference too oppressive. He will give television news leadership and a sense of style. He believes in the ‘Insight’ style of journalism and he is known to be brave. His appointment is to be welcomed; his performance to be watched.

But it is West German television that is really facing up to the challenges of time. The two rival organisations in the Federal Republic have now emerged, more or less unscathed, from an election campaign that brought about the sort of indecisive result that leads only to more headaches — particularly for those in communications. West German television, like the country itself, is rich and powerful. The senior organisation, the ARD, maintains a strong sense of independence and fairness derived from its begetter, Sir Hugh Greene. The system is a federal one, with the nine regional — or Länder — organisations making up the ARD. Each of the regional services supplies its quota of programmes to the national network. Inevitably, some regions are stronger than others. The stations at Cologne and Hamburg produce nearly half the programmes, and, together with Munich, they are responsible for almost two-thirds of the national output. In addition, each of the nine stations transmits up to 11 hours of regional television each week.

It is, of course, a wasteful system. Television Centres are growing ever more palatial in Cologne, Munich, Hamburg and Frankfurt, and even in the little spa town of Baden-Baden. Each one of the Länder must have its row of colour studios, its assembly of OB vans, and its chains of tape and telecine machines. With programmes derived from so many sources, rivalries are sharp, meetings almost continuous, and the words, Wir schalten um… (now we switch to…), the most familiar ones on German television. Nevertheless, the system works — partly because the Second German Television Service operates on a national basis. Located in Mainz, just across the river from Frankfurt, the unfortunately named Second Service is now more than a match for the First. The strength of both lies in their wealth, which is derived from two sources: licence fees and advertising.

A radio and television licence in Germany costs £9 [£125 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] at present (it’s due to go up by 25s. [£1.25 in decimal, £17.30 today]). With 15½ million licences — about 400,000 more than in this country — the income this provides is pretty healthy. But on top of that there is extra revenue from commercial advertising. The licence income is split between the two organisations: 70 per cent for ARD, 30 per cent for the Second Service. The commercial income is kept intact, although it is subject to taxation. Advertising is kept separate from other programmes and the time for it limited to 20 minutes before 8 p.m. This dual income gives West Germany the richest television service in Europe.

Even so, some of the programmes look familiar to anyone from this country. There are the well-known American series: Ironside (called The Chief), Daktari, Big Valley and High Chapparal. The most popular programme, believe it or not, is What’s my line? What makes German television look a little different is the number of documentaries and discussion programmes. Neither the material nor the talent, however, seems available to sustain such a large number. In the last couple of years, the Third Programme has become more established — if not more accepted — throughout the Federal Republic. Its function is primarily educational, and it gives a first showing to some of the more prestigious and difficult drama productions. Unlike the two national networks, which broadcast throughout the country (with considerable spill-over audiences in Holland, Switzerland and Austria), the Third Programme has only a regional audience.

The vigour and independence of West German television is no longer in doubt. The similarities with the British situation are there for all to see: two rival organisations fiercely in competition for audiences. However, there is some limited agreement between the two sides. The same type of programme is not broadcast on both channels at the same time, though the nightly news programmes, which are widely popular, overlap for part of the time.


Willy Brandt

On Tuesday Willy Brandt was elected Chancellor of the West German Republic


It is not until you look at the management of the ARD that the major differences with the British system become clear. The people themselves are dedicated and experienced professionals, many of whom have been trained in BBC ways and methods. The problem is a political one: nearly everyone in a position of authority in German radio and television has made known his political affiliations. It is all carefully balanced. If the Director General of the North German Service in Hamburg is a Social Democrat, his number two will be a Christian Democrat. And, of course, vice versa. This means that the right party card can sometimes decide the issue between two rival claimants for a job. What is more, the regional supervisory boards — usually made up of party and trade union worthies — which control the stations have a decisive influence in senior appointments. It is an open secret that the man best qualified to become the Television Director of the powerful Cologne station missed out because one vote went against him at a supervisory board meeting.

Despite these political complications, the television programmes that formed part of the recent election campaign were in many ways exemplary. Election broadcasts by the parties were limited to a maximum of five minutes each. They were transmitted simultaneously on both the First and Second Network at peak time — immediately after the News at 8.15 p.m. The two major parties — the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats — each did their quota of five broadcasts entirely on film. These followed the American pattern: swiftly moving commercials generally produced by advertising agencies, with German television providing no more than time, telecine and transmitters.

The two extremists — the NDP on the extreme right and the ADF on the extreme left — had their share of time on television. In the highly unlikely event of either of them getting power, it is improbable that they would accord such rights to their rivals. Yet there was Adolf von Thadden with two election broadcasts — a total of seven and a half minutes’ television time to be used as he wished. He chose the straight-to-camera technique, and although he wanted to do it live, he was, in fact, recorded. It says much for German democracy that despite the NDP’s time on television, which totalled almost a third of the Social Democrats’, Von Thadden’s men didn’t get the 5 per cent of the vote which they needed for representation in the Bundestag.

In addition to the party broadcasts, the election campaign was fully reported in many different current affairs programmes. What is more, the Second German Network succeeded in arranging a confrontation between the leaders. At first, it didn’t look like coming off because Chancellor Hiesinger thought it was beneath him to appear on the same programme as his rivals. However, he changed his mind, and so the lineup for this television summit was Kurt Hiesinger for the Christian Democrats, Willy Brandt for the Social Democrats, Franz Josef Strauss for the Christian Social Union and Walter Scheel for the Free Democratic Party. The uniqueness of this occasion should not be underestimated. Ever since the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, television networks in the West have been trying for similar confrontations at election time. The Americans never came near it again: Johnson disliked television discussions; Nixon had learned his lesson in 1960. In this country, too, there was no confrontation between the two leaders either in 1964 or in 1966. The very thought that the leader of the Liberal Party should be there on equal terms with the Big Two would be considered laughable by the party chiefs. Yet that is exactly what happened in West Germany. For two hours, Kiesinger, Brandt, Strauss and Scheel faced questions from German and foreign journalists. The nearest equivalent we have seen in this country have been the BBC’s Election Forums, when each party leader, on his own, faced questions sent in by viewers.

German television reporters have learned how to ask questions; German politicians have learned how to answer them. The forelock-touching days are over. This was evident on results night. As it became clear that neither of the big parties had won an absolute majority, both Kiesinger and Brandt were questioned closely and politely about possible coalition arrangements. In television terms, both have learnt a great deal. Kiesinger, with those grey, bushy eyebrows, begins to look more and more like Mr Macmillan, but tends to lack style. Brandt, who always sounds slightly hoarse, spoke with great determination on election night. But the real stars on the screen were two others who constantly kept appearing. On the one side there was Franz Josef Strauss — trying hard to convey the essence of Gemütlichkeit; on the other side Professor Dr Karl Schiller, conveying just what the Germans look for in their professors. The prominence of Strauss has long been known; the arrival of Schiller in the top echelon is at least partly due to his cool and incisive bearing on television.

There were major differences between the two rival networks in the presentation of the results. The Second Network ran it as a big party from the Bundeshaus in Bonn, with regular breaks for entertainment from such as Esther Ofarim, Cliff Richard, Nancy Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. ARD ran their programme straight, with interruptions only for film reports of that day’s sport. The Second Network’s mixture of election news and recorded entertainment clips was rather strange: neither one thing nor the other. ARD’s far wider range — with 23 outside broadcasts — made for a more comprehensive coverage. Although the key interviews with the leaders were shared between the two networks on election night, there was fierce competition to be first with the prediction of the outcome. The methods both sides used were the same — an IBM computer. The presentation was somewhat different: ARD had one of their best political reporters to interpret the computer’s findings; the Second Network had a David Butler figure — Professor Wildenmann — giving his findings to a reporter. To this observer, watching on two sets, it looked like a draw: the academic was slightly faster and more accurate with his forecasts, the reporter’s findings were more stylish.

The advantage which the German electoral system has over our own is that a count is available from each polling station. There is no waiting, as there is in this country, where all the votes for each constituency are taken to a central place for counting. With 54,000 polling stations to choose from, it becomes considerably easier for the German David Butlers to devise the sample which, with the aid of the computer, can provide a fairly accurate trend quite early in the evening. With polling stations closing at 6 p.m., predictions — reasonably accurate ones – were possible by eight. The trend was so clear that by 9.45 even ARD felt justified in breaking into their results programme with an hour-long suspense film.

To one who has worked in election programmes in Britain and in the United States, there were two interesting pointers: the lack of personalities — the defeat of Gerhard Schroeder in his constituency was almost totally ignored — and the clarity of the analysis presented regularly by well-known television correspondents. It was instructive and reassuring to see West German television so lively and so enterprising. In fact, the people of the Federal Republic paid television the greatest tribute. Due at least in part to the clear way it presented the election campaign, and to that summit confrontation, a greater proportion of Germans went to the polls than ever before. It was the highest-ever turn-out: 87 per cent of those eligible to vote did so. A remarkable sign of maturity in a country just 20 years old.

Paul Fox is Controller of BBC-1.


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