Differences in Television News Coverage; A Comparison of RTL aktuell and ARD Tagesschau

Bachelor Thesis 2006 41 Pages

Communications - Movies and Television


Table of contents

1. Abstract

2. Introduction

3. Background Information
3.1. Historical Development of the German Broadcasting System
3.2. Media conglomeration affecting commercial broadcasting

4. Research Performance
4.1. Coding Sheet
4.2. Research Findings

5. Discussion
5.1. Analysis of ARD Tagesschau
5.2. Analysis of RTL aktuell
5.3. Comparison and Implications

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Appendix
8.1. Coding Sheet
8.2. Fig. 1 and Fig. 2: Graphical representation of share of issue types
8.3. Fig. 3 and Fig. 4: Graphical representation of share of issue forms
8.4. Fig. 5: Graphical representation of issue types by Media Perspektiven
8.5. Fig. 6: Data on viewer numbers and market share by Media Perspektiven


In a case study this paper investigates the differences in news coverage of RTL aktuell and the Tagesschau. These two news programs are broadcasted by two very different German television channels: the privately funded RTL and the publicly funded ARD. The findings of an in-depth analysis of both news broadcastings conducted over a period of one week, suggest the major differences to be 1) in the focus on certain news topics, in the reporting style in terms of 2) balance of opinions, 3) complexity of the issue presented and 4) type and way of language used, and finally 5) in the underlying tone or appeal to the audience. RTL aktuell for example reports less political topics, in a less balanced and complex way. This might be due to a younger audience that is appealed to, and due to expectedly higher ratings, which are hoped to attract more advertisers. These findings suggest that the type of broadcasting system influences the news selection and presentation. Hence, it can be underlined how significant an independent public broadcasting system is for a democracy.


The German broadcasting system is a ´dual system` of public and private channels with different types of funding. In more recent years, an increasingly commercial environment has lead to the criticism that public service broadcasting extends to far into areas that should be left to the free-market. The Länder governments accuse ARD and ZDF of economic inefficiency and therefore propose a restructuring of the organization (Open Society Institute, 2005, p. 746). The European Commission pressures Germany to change its media policy and make the public broadcasting’s tasks more ´transparent`, which means to make a clearer distinction between their public service and commercial activities (Open Society Institute, 2005, p. 746). However, these kinds of measures might decrease the public service broadcasters’ independence from political and economic influences. The importance of a strong and independent public service broadcasting system, can be exemplified by their news coverage. The news is a very significant means in a democracy, since it informs the public on political, social, economic, etc. issues occurring in their home country and abroad. Hence, the news fulfills a very important task that should be protected from misuse in form of strong influence by particular interest groups.

In order to see the difference between public and private broadcasters` news, this paper looks at the news selection and presentation of the two biggest news broadcastings, ARD`s Tagesschau and RTL aktuell. Hereby, the following thesis is investigated: what are the differences in news selection and presentation of the two news reportings, and in how far can these differences be said to result from the channels` ownership by their broadcasting system? For the comparative analysis a content analysis was performed. A self-designed coding sheet helped to compare the representation of politics and other issues in the evening news of the public service channel ARD and the private channel RTL. The coding sheet includes such points as the issues covered, the order of these issues, the form of presentation etc. Over a time period of one week both news broadcasts were coded. During this week an in-depth analysis of one particular issue was conducted. The paper gives first of all background information on the two different broadcasting systems. Then it explains the research conducted and presents some general findings. Afterwards it goes separately into a detailed analysis of the two news broadcastings, before comparing them and suggesting inferences on the nature of these differences.

Background Information

Historical development of the German broadcasting system

The roots of German broadcasting lie in the Weimar Republic. The early years of broadcasting in Germany were mostly associated with Hans Bredow, Under-Secretary of State in the Imperial Post-Ministry. As Broadcasting Commissioner he was granted authority over the new medium. Throughout the Weimar Republic, broadcasting regulation remained under the authority of state officials. Control over the medium was exercised through a central information office on which the broadcasting stations relied for all their news and information. However, the broadcasters concentrated on artistic and entertainment programming, leaving out political expression. Furthermore, many of the state officials were committed to a specifically German kind of ´public-service ethos`. Accordingly, persons such as Hans Bredow were concerned about using the new medium as a kind of instrument of civilization or culture, and to keep it separate from party politics. Despite these efforts, the undemocratic elites of the Weimar Republic prepared the path for the National Socialists to come into power. (Humphreys, 1994, pp. 124-126)

Under this totalitarian system, broadcasting regulation was put under the centralized control of Josef Goebbel`s Reich Propaganda Ministry. Individual regional stations became Reichssender and broadcasting personnel fell victim to Nazi ´coordination` or Gleichschaltung. The authoritarian traits of the Weimar Republic were replaced by the totalitarian features of the Nazi regime. Radio quickly became the most important instrument of forming public opinion and promoting the National Socialist ideology. News and current affairs programs were used to present the Führer`s pronouncements and ´achievements`. Foreign coverage was filtered, as to prevent the influx of information from the outside world, which did not fit with the Nazi ideology. Jewish ´influence` was banned from the medium. Furthermore, broadcasting became a powerful weapon for spreading the Nazi views on ´racial purity`. Especially towards the end of the war, broadcasting was employed as a means of mass-deception about the true military situation. Moreover, light entertainment was used to further discourage critical reflection and to foster a false sense of spiritual and moral contentment. But the war damages did not make a halt before broadcasting. After the war, Germany had less radio sets than at the outbreak of the war. Broadcasting facilities were heavily destroyed and Germany had to rely on the Allies for a rebuilding of the broadcasting system. (Humphreys, 1994, pp.126-128)

The Allied powers used broadcasting in West Germany as a means of reeducation towards liberal democracy. Freedom of broadcasting and independence from the state were thereby the two most important features. The discussion over which broadcasting system should be used, a commercial free market system or a public service system after the model of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) brought about the prevalence of the latter. Broadcasting facilities became neither state nor privately owned but became ´corporations under public law`. That centralized state control of broadcasting needed to be prevented, could be seen on the example of the German Democratic Republic, in which the communist state used broadcasting to promote its political ideology and ideas. Hence, decentralization became another important feature of the West German broadcasting organization system. The degree of enthusiasm regarding decentralization however varied depending on the Ally. (Humphreys, 1994, pp. 128-131)

The Americans appreciated the federalism and with the corporate principle, implemented decentralization to a high degree. They established a number of broadcasting stations in their zone: Radio Bremen, Radio Frankfurt (which became the Hessen Broadcasting service), Radio Stuttgart (which became the South German Broadcasting service), and Radio Munich (which evolved into the Bavarian Broadcasting service). The French and British on the other hand favored a more centralized parliamentary principle in their occupation zones. The French founded the South West German Broadcasting service (which was soon renamed South West Broadcasters). The British who had even sent the influential senior BBC manager Hugh Carleton Greene, constructed a single corporation, the North West German Broadcasting service (NWDR) to serve all four Länder[1] in their occupation zone. What the corporate and the parliamentary principle had in common was their basis on democratic pluralism. (Humphreys, 1994, pp. 128-131)

The different concepts of the Western Allies found expression in the internal organization of the broadcasting corporations. The sovereign body within these corporations was the broadcasting council which chose the administrative council and the Director General (Intendant), who was the chief executive, responsible for the overall general management and the whole program content. In the broadcasting corporations founded by the Americans, the broadcasting council was comprised of representatives chosen by ´socially significant groups`. In the British and the French zones on the other hand, the members of the broadcasting council were elected by the Länder parliaments. After the short period of strict military control, ´Anti-Fascist` German journalists were granted increasing responsibilities for the new stations. The General Directors in most zones were German by the end of 1947, and in 1948 the NWDR was the first to be returned to German ownership by law. In fact, the broadcasting system was returned to German control very rapidly. With the unification of the three occupation zones into the Federal Republic in 1949, the regional authorities were naturally eager to preserve their individual broadcasting corporations. Pretty soon however these stations, especially the small ones, would come to realize that it was better to cooperate. (Humphreys, 1994, pp.128-131)

There was a strong incentive to cooperate, since the threat of the development of a centralized broadcasting authority, or interference of the federal authorities themselves, was never far away. Another threat was the activism of Hans Bredow. The former Broadcasting Commissioner of the Weimar Republic had been dismissed by the Nazis. Hence, his immense stature had survived National Socialism without too much damage. About the broadcasting system in West Germany, he did not like that the General Director had so much power and was democratically controlled by the broadcasting council. Therefore, Bredow, who became chairman of the administrative council of Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt, tried to use this position in order to shift the power more to the administrative council and also to influence other broadcasting stations to do the same. It was his intention to recreate the traditional primacy of public administration, which had been a feature of the broadcasting system in the Weimar Republic. Hence, the General Directors of various stations started to work together and also to promote the cooperation of individual broadcasting stations. The stations themselves also realized that cooperation would be beneficial, considering the high costs of television production, which exceeded by far the costs of radio. As the result, in 1950 the six original public-service broadcasting corporations founded the ARD[2]. With this association, the corporations kept their individual organizational independence, but laid the groundwork for future financial cross-subsidization and networking of the member institutions. Soon, no fewer than eleven broadcasting corporations were joined together in the ARD. A few years later, the debate about a further channel became politicized. (Humphreys, 1994, pp.148-154)

An attempt of the CDU/CSU government of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer to pass a bill in favor of a more centralized broadcasting system failed, because the SPD opposition, the Länder and the public-service broadcasters opposed it. Furthermore, until 1955 the Allied High Commission had still the right to intervene in the German broadcasting system. After the CDU/CSU gained the majority in the 1957 elections, Adenauer triggered a new dispute between the government and the Länder by proposing the establishment of a second ´national` television channel with direct federal government involvement. Adenauer successfully undermined the Länder and even parliament when establishing a commercial channel called Deutschland Fernsehen GmbH, with many of his loyal supporters in its supervisory body. The Federal Constitutional Court ruled in 1961 that these actions were contrary to the constitution, because broadcasting policy was the sole responsibility of the Länder. Reaffirming the principle of sovereignty of the pluralistic groups in society, the Court gave new consideration to the concept of public service with the ´Second TV Judgment` in 1971. In 1961 the Ministerpräsidenten[3] of the Länder grasped the initiative and produced a Staatsvertrag[4] that established the ZDF[5]. In 1964 a so-called ´third channel` in the Länder would be set up, consisting of regional programs originally catering at minority viewers. With their popular programming of feature films, drama, and light entertainment, these channels increasingly began to compete with the first two channels for a wider mass audience. However, the end to the ´monopoly` of the public service channels was near. (Humphreys, 1994, pp. 155- 169)

With Helmut Kohl becoming chancellor in the second half of the 1980s, a ´dual system` of public and commercial channels emerged. Despite the ´guarantee of development` by the government, ARD and ZDF initially struggled for an audience. However, they could stabilize their position in the West German media landscape quickly. The public service channels were still able to reach an audience share of 45% or more. Despite discussion, the public channels still have a largely different profile in schedule from the commercial ones. They have a much larger and more diverse choice in news, current affairs and cultural programming. (Open Society Institute, 2005, pp. 733- 737)

The two major players in commercial broadcasting were Bertelsmann/RTL and the Kirch group. In 2002 after being unable to deal with financial problems, the latter would be bought by US media investor Haim Saban. The group almost remained the same, only now it is called ProSieben/SAT1 Media AG and does not incorporate the digital pay-TV channel Premiere. Even though there were regulations on media ownership, the German government did not prohibit the horizontal expansion and vertical integration of television groups. After unification, the West German public and private channels were extended to East Germany. Even years after the unification, differences in the viewing habits between Western and Eastern Germans are apparent. Statistically, Eastern Germans watch more television, especially more private channels, than their fellow people in the West. In general the German television market is the most competitive in Europe because of the large number of domestic free-to-air channels. (Open Society Institute, 2005, pp. 733- 737)

Media conglomeration affecting commercial broadcasting

The basic differences but also few similarities in ownership and funding between private and public broadcasting lead to the discussion on the issues of media conglomeration, globalization and its societal impact. With Bertelsmann being the conglomerate behind RTL, a more detailed look at this company exemplifies the later discussion. Being a major player in Germany already in 1986, Bertelsmann was barely visible in the US. By 1997 this situation had changed and it was the third largest player there (Compaine, 2001). However, when going global, Bertelsmann has two severe competitive disadvantages compared to other global media players. Firstly, it has no significant film or television production studios or film library. Secondly, the company is only minimally involved in global television. Despite these disadvantages Bertelsmann can display an impressive involvement in the television, radio, print media, and music business. Originally, however, it built its empire on global networks of book and music clubs. Nowadays Bertelsmann owns the German television channels RTL, RTL2, SuperRTL and Vox; it partly owns Germany’s largest pay-TV channel Premiere; and it has stakes in British, French and Dutch television channels. It also owns eighteen European radio stations and has a 50 percent stake in CLT-Ufa, which owns nineteen European TV channels and 23 European radio stations. Moreover, Bertelsmann owns newspaper and magazine publishing houses with more than 100 magazines, and some 40 book publishing houses concentrating on German-, French- and English- language. Furthermore, the company owns the major recording studios Arista and RCA, as well as leading book and record clubs worldwide. (McChesney, 1997)

As the example of Bertelsmann illustrates, the media and especially the broadcasting market seem to become more and more dominated by only a few global companies. Compaine notes that “(…) commercial television is one of the most concentrated of all mass media” (Compaine, 1979, p. 115). However, he also states that the broadcasting industry is always in-flux and the big companies have to go global, and integrate vertically as well as horizontically, in order to keep their position in this more and more competitive market (Compaine, 2001). Compaine argues against the claim that this process of increasing conglomeration entails the risk of media owning companies dictating public opinion. The media caters their audience and not their owners; their primary goal is to make profit and not to promote an ideology (Compaine, 2001). Moreover, he adds that there is no universal public interest, only numerous changing ´interested publics` that try to implement their agendas by means available to them in a more or less flawed democracy (Compaine, 2001).


[1] provinces

[2] Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland - Association of Public Broadcasting Corporations of the Federal Republic of Germany

[3] presidents of the ministry

[4] state contract

[5] Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen - Second German Television


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Maastricht University – University College
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Differences Television News Coverage Comparison Tagesschau Capstone

Title: Differences in Television News Coverage; A Comparison of RTL aktuell and ARD Tagesschau