'Fireworks' and controversy usher in West Germany's cable TV
Bonn — The era of cable television and private broadcasting arrived in West Germany on Jan. 1 with the trumpeting of Handel's ''Fireworks Music.'' This time, however, Handel's music was celebrating not the peace of Aix-le-Chapelle, but a continuing war of words.
Going cable is no problem. That is technological progress - and despite the Greens, very few Germans would dream of opposing the technological progress of copper and glass fibers and satellite beams, written text on command, and two-way communication.
No, the controversy centers instead on private broadcasting. The experiment just begun in Ludwigshafen - unlike the forthcoming pilots in Munich, Berlin, and Dortmund - includes commercial programming for the first time in West German history. And this has sent a frisson through citizens used to the minute checks and balances of the ''public law broadcasting institutions'' of Germany, in which foreign correspondents are assigned according to party quotas. The trade unions and churches have their say as well.
Conservative politicians (but not necessarily businessmen) favor free competition and an end to the postwar monopoly of the national first and second and regional third channels.
The Social Democrats, the trade unions, and the existing TV stations oppose ''commercialization'' and ''American conditions,'' which, they fear, could create bland programs tailored to mass taste.
In the middle is the bemused Hans Q. Public. If all goes as planned, at some point he will have to choose among quiz programs, soccer games, ''Dallas,'' and old Bogart movies - not just from the present three channels, but from 24 additional TV channels and 24 additional radio channels.
But all may not go as planned. The German appetite for ever-changing novelties from the tube is not yet as insatiable as the American one. Only some 2,000 of the 30,000 eligible households have subscribed to the new Ludwigshafen service. Producers have contracted for only 11 out of the 15 immediately available channels. And with audience prospects uncertain, few advertisers are rushing to buy expensive commercials.
Among the fledgling broadcasters already hard at work in their studios are the national newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a consortium of local newspapers in the region around Ludwigshafen, various publishing houses, the British firm Satellite Television (which will be broadcasting in English), Radio Tele Luxembourg (via a powerful signal from a border-line mountain rather than via cable), and the ''International Christian Radio Society.'' Also, a do-it-yourself station will be available for any civic groups wanting air time.
Music and news will provide a lot of the new fare, along with reruns of old movies. (Half of the cable movies scheduled so far have already been shown on public-law television.)
Despite the slack demand even for the new cable channels, West Germany is proceeding with constructing additional capacity.
In the spring, the second European Communications Satellite (ECS 2) will begin reflecting transmissions back from earth on a 72,000-kilometer (44,600 -mile) round-trip journey. These signals will be too weak to be picked up by anything smaller than a three-meter-wide antenna, and will therefore be collected by large-area receivers that will then transmit the programs via cable.
Later in the decade, space satellites will be put into operation that will be powerful enough to transmit directly to home receivers. By then, the satellite and cable network is intended to provide good quality reception for all of West Germany's 21.5 million TV sets, in whatever valley they may be found.