West German Television

1 Nov

Here’s a short history of mainly post-war West German television.  Perhaps this can generate some discussion surrounding “cultural status” and television as a form of art.  Enjoy!

Germany’s flourishing radio culture helped position the country as a pioneer in television broadcasting during the 1930s. The speed at which broadcasting technologies were developed is indebted to the Nazi government’s , belief that instruments of mass culture (radio, television and film) could fundamentally “transform the consciousness of the public” (Smith 77).  Embedded in this ideology, television quickly became a mass public medium, broadcast in public squares with mandatory viewing.  Under the Nazi government, television technological development flourished as they created stronger signals and transmitters to reach across their growing empire.

Following the end of WWII and the division of Germany, the West divided broadcasting power among the three occupying powers.  France, the U.S. and Great Britain all had their own separate stations and broadcasting centers, each drawing upon their own national televisual traditions (Smith 78).  From the very beginning, the allied forces envisioned broadcasting as a means of politically reconstructing West Germany. For example, the U.S. policy states:

a)     to make use of the information media in brining home to the Germans the objects of the occupation, and to reconstitute German informational services in such a manner that they assist in the democratic reorientation of the people; and,

b)    the establishment of a free German media expression, cleansed of Nazi and militarist influence. (Shattuc 21).

Eventually, the three practices were drawn together to form a single station under the West German constitution, granting power to local government (“Land governments”) rather than the central Federal government. Despite obvious pressures from the allied forces, German television did not immediately adapt the American form of commercial broadcasting.  Instead, the Western Germany adapted the British model of a more “democratic and pluralistic” form of broadcasting, which quickly became highly politicized as each station elected representatives from political parties, churches, unions, cultural organizations, and businesses to oversee development (Shattuc 24, Smith 78).  Controlled through advisory boards and elected councils, these Land stations became platforms for local organizations, often taking on the “public service” format.

It wasn’t until 1954 that Germany established a nation-wide station (ARD), which utilized signals from multiple locations to broadcast across the West.  Drawing from the structure of the Land channels, ARD helped establish the State Committee for Broadcasting which aimed to balance of political and social powers in control and “improve the tone of the medium” (Smith 79).  Despite attempts to provide a broad range of political opinions, the bulk of the programming served to justify the government in the East, and under the Federal Republic’s constitution, the country was unable to license commercial stations, despite attempts to expand and privatize television.

Finally, in 1961, Germany saw the introduction of a second, state controlled channel (ZDF).  Lead by a national council, ZDF had broadcasting locations across the country and began to sell advertising in small blocks.  [It should be noted that advertising was separated out from programming: all contained within one or two time blocks aired in the evening (Smith 80).]  Despite these changes, programming typically still gravitated toward political and social issues, supplemented with “intellectually demanding material” from local channels across the nation (Smith 80). Their focus remained on the educational programming, that had begun in the early post war eras during reconstruction. Educational programs were most often modeled after the BBC, which was viewed as the “proper,” form of teaching, thereby encouraging “high” levels of cultural and social standards (Shattuc 23).

Western Germany was marked by a fear of the “culturally lowering effects of commercial television,” which fueled their programming choices through the 1980s. This paranoia extended to cultural scholarship from members of the Frankfurt School, who often denounced forms of mass culture because they were believed to “promote conformism” (Steinman 79).  Figures like Adorno expressed skepticism toward transformative potential of practices of mass culture like film and television, but at the same time acknowledged the reflective and critical potentiality of the mediums: “all culture shares the guilt of society, It ekes out its existence only by virtue of injustice already perpetrated in the sphere of production, much as does commerce” (Steinman 79).  Following these anxieties, critics began to look toward culture’s increasingly close relationship to the educated bourgeoisie’s agenda, labeling the television industry as “individual,” “enslaving” and illustrative of an alienation where “our imaginations are dead” (Shattuc 33).

This sense that mediums of culture were participatory in social guilt and production was a key interest for filmmaker Rainer Warner Fassbinder.  By the 1970’s, when Fassbinder began his work on television, the anxiety surrounding mass media’s relationship to Fascism had deeply embedded itself into German culture (Shattuc 34). Unlike the variety of American programs, German television during this era was primarily one to two hour made for TV movies, and critical cultural event pieces, including poetry readings and theatrical stagings (Shattuc 34) Coming out of this discourse of “high culture,” television became a space for auteurs, like Fassbinder to explore politicized programming with the aid of state funding. Television’s culture status created an ideal space for him to explore his concerns for working class and immigrant populations, and Germany’s problematic mass media history, through his own flair for radical modes of filmmaking and narration.  Jane Shattuc has gone as far to argue that filmmakers like Fassbinder helped collapse a gap between film and television during the 1970s and 80s, thereby widening the state funded space for artists to create and show their work to the largest national audiences possible (Shattuc 56).

Germany presents a particularly interesting historical example because its problematic relationship to mass media, social guilt and artistic hierarchy.  By “elevating” the medium of television, while simultaneously attempting to democratize it, the West German film industry poses a radical departure from the American model.  How can we compare the Germany’s insistence upon “high culture” to post-war television in the U.S.?  And what would it mean to “collapse” the distinction between film and television?  Perhaps this brief history can lead us to a discussion of the “status” of television with contemporary American culture, and whether shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, or Six Feet Under participate in a hierarchical structure.

Work Cited:

Shattuc, Jane. Television, Tabloids, and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture. MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 1994.

Smith, Anthony. Television: an international history. UK:Oxford University Press, 1995.

Steinman, Clay. “Reception of Theory: Film/Television Studies and the Frankfurt School.” Perspectives on German Cinema. New York :London: G.K. Hall ;Prentice Hall International, 1996.

Additional background provided by Wikipedia Page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Television_in_Germany

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One Response to “West German Television”

  1. jhaderlein November 4, 2012 at 7:35 pm #

    This post is fascinating. In a culture as involved with critical theory and cultural studies as West Germany it would be interesting to trace which kinds of programming were considered “political” and how dramas or entertainment are seen as obviously representing certain ideologies. What would our day-to-day lives be like if the news media featured intense ideological wars over the political slant of televised content? An interesting way to hint at this would be to contrast the opposing content of the biased ’50s with the more mainstream but still topical content of the ’60s. Somewhere between there is a politicized discourse and simply an intellectually stimulating, educated, one. Was the television you watched during the divisive period a clear proxy for your ideology or perhaps a subtle indicator, and if it was the first one how did you feel when that division ended up going away? How do you understand viewership if it isn’t a political statement? These days much of our television seems to exist in a mainstream vacuum free from criticism or implication, while all the while even critically acclaimed shows portray troubling depictions of race class and gender. Perhaps more state control and intervention in television would have at least one positive benefit, a democratic element of accountability wherein our representatives would actually be held responsible for truly troubling content, even if the uneducated masses were still tuning in. Whether or not purifying our broadcasting from cultural biases actually has an impact or is worth this kind of intervention is of course a different question.

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