Europe Pries Open Austrian TV Monopoly

AN unexpected radical decision by the European Court on Human Rights has drastically altered the broadcast-media landscape in Austria.

It has also brought a sense of great unease to the Austrian Broadcasting Corp. (ORF), which until now has enjoyed a radio and television monopoly.

In stark contrast to virtually all other European nations, the Austrian government has refused until now to grant a license to commercial radio and television broadcasters who might compete with the ORF.

A number of those who were shut out complained to the human rights court, which functions under the European Convention on Human Rights established by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. The court has now ruled that the maintenance of the state's broadcast monopoly - however high its quality - violates the European Convention on Human Rights; it interferes with the ``freedom to impart information and ideas.''

In practical terms, the tribunal's decision brings commercial radio and television to Austria for the first time and requires Austria's Parliament to amend the broadcast law.

The publisher of Neue Kronenzeitung, one of the major popular tabloids here, already has applied for a license to operate a commercial TV station. Hans Dichand wants to run Tele 1 in direct competition with the ORF.

The ORF's two channels operate on a large budget drawn from commercials and viewer fees. They do not benefit from state subsidies and therefore - on paper at least - are not beholden to the government.

ORF's balanced board

On the other hand, all Austrian political parties are represented on the ORF board, and the ORF hiring policy is dictated by a desire to maintain a political balance. That sometimes brings charges that the ORF is at the command of political whim and that its vast bureaucracy is at the beck and call of powerful politicians.

Recently, the Austrian broadcasting giant was rocked by a sudden internal dispute that ended with the abrupt dismissal of the ORF's highly respected and widely popular program director, Ernst Wolfram Marboe.

Mr. Marboe was charged with having assigned a major operetta-production project to his son and so compromising the ORF. The charge, supported by part of the ORF board, came from Gerd Bacher, the powerful director of the ORF, reportedly long at odds with Marboe over policy questions.

Marboe explains his dismissal as part of a personal vendetta with political overtones that reflects the proximity of Austrian elections in the fall of 1994.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bacher, a determined opponent of allowing commercial television in Austria, says he is retiring this year, and the rumor mill here has it that the Marboe affair may hasten his departure.

Bacher argues fervently that the small size of the Austrian market will not support a viable commercial TV operation, a theory the nine-member European Court on Human Rights specifically rejected.

Observers here note that Austria is unique in that, in addition to the official ORF, Viennese have access to some 19 cable channels that pump a wide variety of German, Swiss, Italian, French, and other programs into the country around the clock.

Unique market

Further, ORF officials emphasize that their organization occupies a unique place in Austrian cultural and political life, and that its considerable revenue supports a host of non-broadcast activities, such as the Austrian film industry.

Bacher points out that the ORF now broadcasts an astonishing 35 hours a day on its two TV channels. ``We may be a small country, but we are a European television Grossmacht [major power],'' he says proudly, ``and we export many of our shows.''

The ORF chief acknowledges that, over the past few years, German television interests have continually pressed to get a foot into Austria's door.

``With 2.5 million TV homes, we are just too small a market to support yet another German program,'' Bacher says. ``The Germans would love to come in here. So far we have successfully resisted them.''

What's more, Bacher sees the ORF as a vital Austrian voice when the country joins the European Common Market, likely in 1995.

``When a commercial station opens up, the next day it will be owned by German interests, and the day after it will allocate an hour a day to Austrian news,'' Bacher worries.

Many Austrians share Bacher's concern about German interests taking over Austrian television. And that is one reason the Austrian government is expected to act slowly and carefully before it starts issuing licenses for the new commercial operations.

Competition established

While opening the door to commercial TV, the nine judges on the European Court on Human Rights nevertheless confirmed the government's right to control the medium - both in radio and in television - through the issuance of licenses. The court only set the ground rules: Their decision doesn't specify how many commercial licenses must be granted and how quickly.

The range of programs carried on the ORF is astonishingly wide and includes many ORF co-productions with other countries, notably with the Leo Kirch Group in Germany, one of Europe's most prominent producers and distributors.

The ORF is a participant in a major production, ``Radetzky March,'' a four-hour series based on the classic Joseph Roth Novel. The ORF co-produced (again with the Kirch Group) a major series on the life of Johann Strauss two years ago. (It never ran on US television.)

One of the most popular of the ORF shows is its New Year's Day concert, played by the Vienna Philharmonic and seen regularly in the US over the Public Broadcasting System. Marboe voices disappointment that PBS is the only American network to show an interest in the concert, which is picked up around the world.

Introduction of commercial television in Austria is not only likely to diminish the advertising revenue of the ORF, it may also intensify the presentation of US shows, as it has elsewhere on European commercial stations.

Some in Europe blame commercial TV for the increasingly precarious situation of public broadcasters on the Continent, who once dominated the TV scene. Others see it as providing a breath of fresh air and a healthy competition to the state-run networks.

Marboe and Bacher have been at odds on many issues, including the number of American programs bought by the ORF.

``My children know `The Streets of San Francisco' better than the streets of Vienna,'' Marboe jokes. ``It really is quite frustrating to us.''

Bacher, now completing his third term at the ORF, prides himself on being one of the very few (if not the only) top TV administrators in Europe to come up from journalism.

What does he consider his proudest achievement over the years?

``Our fascinating mission to the countries behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe,'' he replies. ``People depended on our programs. Today, we help train their personnel, and we offer them a large catalog of free shows.

``Broadcasting in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc., was mostly run by Communists. Today, these TV organizations lack an infrastructure, and they are desperately poor. We teach them, but we try not to impose our ideas, because their conditions are so different.

``Frankly, there are times when we actually like to work with former Communists. At least they know how things function in broadcasting.''

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