“German tele” – Daniel Winter about TV culture and the “GEZ”

27.02.2011

In a three week-series our British columnist Daniel Winter deals with a better society. Today he focuses on German Television.

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The “GEZ”-headquarters in Cologne. Photo: Henning Kaiser / dapd.

As an expert on everything, I’ve always been confused by people who complain about the influence of television and the media. Those hollow squawks of ‚TV is narcotising society!‘ and ‚We’re all being brainwashed by the media!‘ seemed to me like the equivalent of a tramp raving on about the coming apocalypse. How could people like walking boob-job Heidi Klum or always-gets-dressed-in-the-dark Thomas Gottschalk be ruining our society? I mean, how much would you know about the world without TV? How the Amazon rainforests look, what you can find at the depths of our deepest oceans, a close look at the candidates running in the latest elections and how to screw a light bulb in with your feet, or break your spine jumping over a car (epic fail). Is this worth the €204 you have to pay per year in Germany to the GEZ, the television licencing body?

Television is somewhere between genius and madness, between sweet and narcotic, between war and sex.

For those who never watch TV, or watch it sparingly, it is sometimes difficult to imagine the point of watching it at all. The “electronic bullshitter”, as my favourite TV critic Charlie Brooker likes to call it, is to those with other things to do – like cooking, cleaning, taking care of the kids, working, exercising, reading books, socialising with friends, studying, or writing articles for a radio website – a complete waste of time. However, the fact that television effects the way the country informs itself is undeniable, not only when it comes to important current affairs events, but even on the microsocial level of how the individual interprets society, culture and life around him or herself in general.

To put this all into context requires a group of people where the effect of television can be closely monitored, a situation where practically all cultural input can be supervised, unaffected by the bright lights and shiny things distracting the average humanoid as they slog through their pathetic run-of-the-mill lives. It requires a place where all activity is regulated, including communication from the outside world and the ability to observe the kind of people they interact with. A prison of sorts.

In Yvonne Jewkes’ revealing study of prisoners’ use of media demonstrated the medium as being important in the way we organise our social reality, it being “an essential part of the ‘map’ by which we navigate everyday life,” as she puts it in her introduction. Sadly, this being an article and not a textbook, I’m forced to cut her wonderful and insightful study down to a measly summary: Imagine you are a typical man, a typical blokey bloke. You love hot girls, fast cars, drinking with your mates and going to football matches. Then you enter the world of the prison. Everything that you have ever known, the freedom for you to do those above mentioned things that you enjoy, is on the other side of those high, barbed wired walls. You feel dehumanised, disconnected from everything familiar. To avoid depression and the pains of being incarcerated, you need to adapt through using coping mechanisms. If you don’t fit in with the ‘social hierarchy’ of the prison, what else is there? TV can give you shows about cars and sitcoms about mates who drink down the pub, and football matches, occasionally even some hot girls thrown in for good measure. The best bit is, if you have a TV in your cell, you can choose what you watch. Use of television can provide you with control where there is otherwise none, a link to your self beyond the four grey walls of your cell – helping to limit depression, and, as some suggest, aiding reform.

Clearly, TV can be powerful stuff.

Powerful, not only for prisoners, but for all of us. To a different extent, but for many just as important, TV provides some people with a way of coping in everyday life, and for many more, it gives them an insight into the world which remains out of their reach (the Amazon rainforests, the depths of the oceans etc. etc.).

Some argue, however, that television is an entirely destructive medium. Authors like Neil Postman claim that TV cannot sustain serious ‘content’ – the only valid form of conveying complex and serious argument being, in his opinion, the printed word. The title of his 1986 book summed up his opinion: we are ‘amusing ourselves to death’. Another critic of television, Robert Putnam, showed a correlation between increasing television use and declining social trust and sense of mutual obligation.

Germany, like many countries, has a mixed market system in television, made up of both commercial and public broadcasters. Commercial broadcasters are funded by advertising revenue, whilst the public broadcasters are mostly paid for by a television licence administered by the Gebühreneinzugszentrale (GEZ). The rules according to their website, are that you must pay a fee if you are the owner of a television, radio or device capable of connecting to the internet (including mobile phones), whether you use these devices for receiving broadcasts or not. In total, the GEZ distributes €7.6 billion Euros to the public service broadcasters of Germany, including ARD’s regional member stations and national broadcaster ZDF.

Is it worth paying for GEZ? There are many arguments against the licence, which I will return to in a dedicated article in the future. However, looking at the arguments for and against television that we have already encountered, we have reached a crossroads. We can either:

1. Pay for the television licence, which is €204 a year. Watch television and be informed about the world around us (and in with that, legally listen to radio and use the internet), our constant companion and map on the complex road of life.

2. Save our money. Not allow us to waste our time watching programmes which will not have any useful impact on our everyday lives, and spend our time doing other, productive activities.

Sometimes I catch myself watching television and realising that what I am watching is irrelevant and pointless.

Watching the“ X Factor“ will not change my life for the better, it will not educate me or inform me about the world.

After watching it, I will not be a better person, or feel fulfilled for having watched it. In fact, during the time I spent watching it, I could have been doing something useful and productive with my time. The test is, I suppose, if it were a book, would you bother buying it and reading it from cover to cover? If the „X Factor“ were a book, I would probably burn it.

Whether you should choose option one or option two is up to you. Perhaps the best option would be somewhere in between, which would be to limit your television consumption to a couple of hours a week, ensuring you only watch it for the important things, when there really isn’t anything else to do. I say ‘would be’ and not ‘is’ because, by watching a little television, you would still have to pay the full licence fee. If the €204 a year is worth it when you only watch television a few hours a week, perhaps rarely or never listen to the radio or access public media services online, I will leave that up to you to decide.

Television may or may not be all hypnotising us into believing certain cultural untruths, but what I can say for sure is that television can in some ways be a tool for empowerment and sometimes simply a waste of time.

Whenever you switch on a television, just take a moment to think: what am I gaining from this programme? Is there something better I could be doing? And, depending on the programme, either sit down and watch, or go about your day.


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