Media concentration in germany: the power of the corporations

Media companies should never have so much market share that they determine opinion. But the laws that govern that are outdated.

When a broadcaster approaches an audience share of 30 percent, it becomes dangerous for diversity Photo: afp

Bild has led the way, and now RTL is following suit. The private broadcaster also wants to launch a live video service on the web to react to news situations at any time. But whether the Cologne-based company is allowed to do so at all was first decided by the KEK, the Commission for Determining Concentration in the Media – a group of experts. And in December, it ruled that RTL could. Despite all its activities, RTL’s power to influence opinion was not in danger.

The KEK has been examining the media power of corporations since the end of the 1990s – and it does so independently of location interests, which drive the state media authorities, for example. CEC reports are freely accessible, accompanied by graphics on the interconnections of the scene. The CEC thus creates transparency in a market that is rather opaque to outsiders.

For example, it is possible to see at a glance what a current KEK graphic breaks down: Bertelsmann has a stake of eight levels in RTL Television GmbH, which includes the full German channel RTL and – via another branch – n-tv. Other arrows show who else is behind RTL channels, such as RTL2, in which the publishing houses Bauer and (a little bit) Burda are still involved, and indirectly also Walt Disney, which in turn is even more strongly behind SuperRTL.

The CEC calculates, for example, as follows: Of all TV viewers, a good 22 percent recently tuned in to RTL stations. Because the main channel also shows regional programs and programs from third parties such as Spiegel TV and Stern TV, the auditors deduct just under 5 percent. This means that "in the rating, the audience share is only 17.3 percent. The commission only gets restless when the audience share reaches 30 percent, which is the alarm limit. Because RTL is far from that according to the current calculation, it is allowed to launch its stream channel.

"Error in the system"

But is this calculation method still up to date for determining which media groups can influence society and how strongly? "Opinion power is measured against classic, linear television," explains Georgios Gounalakis. He has chaired the CEC for almost four years. He and his colleagues, on the other hand, are generally not allowed to examine what happens on the Internet. "That’s a big flaw in the system."

Only if the audience share exceeds 25 percent are the auditors allowed to add other markets to find out whether the market power from TV programs and, for example, newspapers or even production companies exceeds the current limit. In 2006, for example, the CEC prohibited Axel Springer – then still a traditional newspaper and magazine publisher – from merging with the ProSiebenSat1 broadcasting group. A court overturned the decision, but the merger never took place. Even then, however, the ruling demonstrated the need for reform in media concentration law.

The CEC continues to look at what Springer is doing – also because this media group has now become a TV broadcaster itself with "Welt. "Welt," which until 2018 was still known as N24, ironically goes back to the merger wrangling with ProSiebenSat1 in the 2000s. But even Bild’s livestreaming offensive is left out of the CEC trials: Bild does not broadcast on traditional TV.

But those who want to know what power Springer’s major investor KKR has in the German media market will learn, among other things, that KKR also has an indirect stake in RTL2 and in the up-and-coming TV and film supplier Leonine. However, much of what KKR supports is not a direct TV operation and is therefore currently irrelevant to the KEK.

Protecting media diversity

Meanwhile, the states are working on a new media concentration law. "We think it is in urgent need of renovation," emphasized Heike Raab in the fall. The SPD politician coordinates the states’ media policies and wants to move away from the "view that has been very TV-centric so far."

Raab has installed a working group on the question of how media diversity can be protected. But it’s not about foundations or levies on Facebook and Co. Instead, all activities should be examined when looking at media groups and financiers. Only then, for example, would streaming offers also be an issue, from German broadcasting groups such as RTL or ProSiebenSat1, but also from the USA. "We are currently blinded in this eye," says CEC Chairman Gounalakis. He would also like to look at Netflix and Amazon, but is not allowed to, although they are also increasingly discontinuing German productions, including documentaries and docu-series.

Actually, the big update on media concentration law should have been here long ago: The states wanted to enshrine it from the start in their State Media Treaty, which replaced the outdated Interstate Broadcasting Treaty at the end of last year. However, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia had put the brakes on. That’s no coincidence: RTL is based in Cologne, ProSiebenSat1 in Munich. The two countries apparently did not want to take the risk that new rules could restrict their "own" corporations.

So now the countries are continuing to negotiate. The portal has become the forum for this debate. A conversation with CDU politician Dirk Schrodter published there shows how cumbersome it is. The head of Schleswig-Holstein’s state chancellery warned that an agreement could only succeed "if the states, despite their desire to assert their own interests as well, do not lose sight of the overriding goal of a functioning media concentration law." A clear signal to North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria.

The states are still planning many talks with experts. It is unclear, for example, on what data a much more far-reaching evaluation of media groups and financiers should be based when it comes to journalistic power. At best, however, future currencies and limits in media concentration will not be decided behind closed doors.

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