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The Cologne Medienforum wrapper

The Cologne Medienforum, held from June 5 - 11 celebrated its 20th anniversary and provided again in numerous seminars, key note speeches and screenings an ideal opportunity for interventions by civil servants, politicians, representatives from the commercial television sector and senior managers from public television, the film, print and digital media areas. The Medienforum was introduced by a four day special programs “Grosses Fernsehen” (Great TV) covering large screen projections of unreleased German and International television productions and a weekend Medienfest with academic and private sector agencies informing youth about media professions. Throughout the forum the North Rhine Westphalia (NRW), Film Stiftung (film foundation) featured its international film congress with seminars and screenings, a congress which had been part of the forum since its inception.

The Medienforum has been funded by the City of Cologne and the State government with sponsorship from NRW based media groups, specifically in the television area. It reflects superbly the dramatic shift of North Rhine Westphalia’s economy from its coal and steel base to an information and media base employing now close to 400 000 individuals in these areas. It has become Germany’s largest production venue for television and film productions and houses in Cologne the continent's largest public television station (WDR), Europe’s biggest commercial broadcaster
(RTL), as well as large state of the art production facilities, including studios as big as those found in Hollywood,

Germany has a dual television system where public television stations commanding currently a 45% audience share are funded through a monthly compulsory fee each television household has to pay and some restricted additional advertising revenues. Commercial television is financed solely through advertising. Both camps have different interest driven perspectives. Defenders of public television argue for the cultural and educational function of television and deplore the quality of profit driven commercial television. Private sector broadcasters object to public television deriving growing subsidies through their fee based income and strenuously oppose public television’s expansion into distribution technologies be it cable, satellite and specifically the internet.
To date German courts have sided with public television and most politicians present at the Medienforum expressed their suspicion of the neo-liberal positions of Brussels. Senior officials from the European Union consider the use of mandated fees by public television for expansion into e.g. the internet a subsidy that distorts competition and places private interests at a disadvantage. This position is strongly upheld by Neelie Kroes , the EU Commissioner in charge of market competition whose office also cracked down on Microsoft. As it was argued in Cologne public television provides an important service since it represents and expands cultural values, a platform that must be strengthened and expanded into new technologies.
Conflicting positions (and problematic background assumptions) were typical for several panels. In the key note seminar on “What Media could, can, should and must do" speakers’ affiliation determined their position. Those upholding the merit of public television made some questionable observation, starting with the moderator Wolfgang Herles. He wanted to know from the keynoter Bruce L. Paisner (President of the Intentional Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and CEO of Hearst), if "the lousy quality of US TV contributed to the political mess the US is facing now”, demonstrating his ignorance about US television as well as naiveté about the alleged power of television. Another problematic intervention from a former judge deplored the degrading of court room manners by Germans having been exposed to court room TV. These positions were frequently coupled with the assertion that sheer profit considerations degraded the quality of television and that the variety of programming is threatened by commercial TV. Assuming that television has such power North Rhine Westphalia’s secretary for family and integration, Armin Laschet expressed the hope that television and specifically public television could make a contribution to the integration of society in light of declining normative values. Katja Hofem-Best (Discovery Networks, Germany), Olaf Castritius (GE Commercial Finance, Munich) and Bruce Paisner had no problems responding to some of the problematic intervention, referring to differentiated, high quality and profitable programming provided by the Discovery Channel and the relatively low profit resulting from some corporate media transactions in Germany. As Bruce Paisner pointed out, Barak Obama's support by US television helped his nomination, yet Paisner was most skeptical about the pedagogic role allocated to public television by its supporters. Television does not generate values but can only reflect them, though should stick to being truthful. As he noted, if we expect television to create moral values our societies are truly in trouble.

It is noteworthy that in the panel on migration and film independent film makers took a similar position. They do not consider themselves having a ‘mission’ or an obligation to impact society’s values; rather they report from their individual views what they see in society. The underlying issues persist however. Assuming that television, and for that matter film, has an impact, it is easy to propagate the view that the media generate normative values (or that advertising brings pecuniary values). Thus subsidies for television through compulsory fees or support for film making through grants could be defended. Yet such subsidies threaten open and unhampered competitions as espoused by Brussel’s secretary for competition who could eventually also object to billions of euros provided each year by public agencies to foster the film industry.

This is the first of several articles about the 2008 Medienforum. The next articles will review television and film productions screened at the Medienforum and discuss the important role of the NRW Film Foundation.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent

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