German row over paid-for HDTV ramps up
Jörn Krieger

A row over the extra fee German viewers will have to pay for high-definition versions of free-to-air channels is escalating. German commercial broadcaster RTL has been forced to refute criticism from public broadcasters ARD and ZDF over commercial TV groups’ plans to encrypt their HDTV offers and charge fees.

“It is of little help – and at the same time sanctimonious – when our public broadcaster colleagues see it as a wrongdoing that the channel line-up on SES Astra’s platform HD+ will be subject to a fee from users for the added value,” said Marc Schröder, managing director of RTL Interactive, in Berlin.

Schröder reproached the public broadcasters for concealing from the debate the fact that they have been granted a total of €244 million for the launch of their HDTV services during the current licence fee period. “From my point of view, half-truths like these are dispensable.”

Schröder also defended the planned encryption and restrictions on recording and copying possibilities, saying that the investment in HDTV involved two conditions which must be fulfilled: Signal protection and the prospect of a functional business model. “Who can seriously dispute that in times like these?” asked Schröder.

“We have to protect our signal against misuse, whether it’s copying and distribution, whether it’s against overlaying with third party content, or against any mechanisms which endanger our advertising financed business model, because only the advertising financed system allows the programme variety which we currently enjoy in the German market,” he said.

ARD and ZDF have accused commercial broadcasters of putting a brake on the quick market penetration of HDTV through their “consumer unfriendly” encryption and copyright protection plans.

Meanwhile, satellite operator SES Astra has also defended the planned imposition of a reception fee for HD+.

“HD+ is free-to-air television,” said president and CEO Ferdinand Kayser in Berlin. “We are only planning a service fee for reception of the offer and not for the content, components or packages.”

The platform, to be encrypted in Nagravision, will launch on November 1 on Astra (19.2° East) with the HDTV versions of commercial general interest channels RTL and VOX. Sat.1, ProSieben and kabel eins will follow in January 2010. According to Kayser, contracts with the channels’ parent companies RTL and ProSiebenSat.1 have already been signed.

The purchase price of a HD+ compliant set-top-box includes the reception fee for the first year. The amount of the reception fee has not yet officially been set, but industry insiders believe it will be €50 to €60 per year.