European Commission approves ORF quality agreement

Austrian TV viewers are to get “higher quality, more public-service broadcasting” after the European Commission (EC) approved a new agreement on the operation of public broadcaster ORF. SPÖ State Secretary Josef Ostermayer negotiated the agreement with EU Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes. He said approval of the agreement would mean “higher quality, more public-service broadcasting, more transparency and program cost levels decided upon by a new, independent media regulatory authority.”

The Austrian-EC agreement comes after complaints to the EC about ORF’s financing from the Association of Austrian Newspapers (VÖZ), the Association of Austrian Private Broadcasters (VÖP) and private broadcaster Premiere (now Sky). VÖZ’s complaint in 2004 alleged that ORF was using state subsidies to offer online services that were not provided for in its mandate.

“Five-year-long negotiations have come to an end. We are very satisfied with the result. Implementation of the agreement at national level must occur within one year,” said Mr Ostermayer. The agreement requires that a new regulatory authority, which must be completely independent of ORF, must approve all its new offers in advance and that ORF must provide “clear offer concepts” for its online programming. Ostermayer said that would guarantee more transparency in the Austrian media market.

Public service material, which will not have to be pre-approved but must be free of advertisements, will have to remain online for seven days. At the same time, ORF will have to downsize its public service offerings and avoid competing with newspapers online. The EC did not criticise the system for financing public service broadcasting but instead wants financing levels to be examined and, if necessary, adjusted every five years.

The new regulatory authority will have to examine the fees paid by Austrians with televisions and radios for ORF, and the agency must have balanced its budget within ten years. Monthly TV licence fees ranging from 18.61 to 23.71 Euros which are obligatory for anyone with a TV in Austria vary according to the province in question. The fee is highest in Styria at 23.71 Euros, followed by Carinthia at 23.31 Euros, while it is the lowest in Upper Austria and Vorarlberg, both at 18.61 Euros. The money collected from fees for radio and TV broadcasting goes to the finance ministry, and contributions in support of art are divided between the federal and provincial governments.