Ten years after switching from a device-related fee to a household fee to finance public service broadcasting in Germany, Austria could also go in this direction.

The Constitutional Court (VfGH) in Vienna has paved the way for this.

He upheld a lawsuit brought by the ORF against the so-called streaming gap: It is unconstitutional if people who only watch the ORF on the Internet do not have to pay a program fee.

The relevant provisions of the Broadcasting Act must be amended by the end of 2023.

Stephen Lowenstein

Political correspondent based in Vienna.

  • Follow I follow

For years, ORF managers have shown sympathy for the German regulation, which since 2013 has flushed several hundred million euros into the coffers of the local public broadcasters every year.

The ORF Director General Roland Weißmann said in an interview with the Austria Press Agency (APA): "In the past, practically everyone had a conventional television set, and it wasn't called a household fee.

How to solve it in detail is again a question for the legislator.” The only thing that matters to him is that the ORF “needs a certain amount of financing” for the streaming of its products, especially since media are increasingly being consumed on smart TVs and computers.

ORF law can be amended with a simple majority

Already under his predecessor Alexander Wrabetz, an application was made to the Constitutional Court against the provisions of the ORF law.

The fact that the lawsuit was accepted was seen as a sign.

Previously, courts up to and including the Administrative Court had rejected attempts by the GIS (as the counterpart to the “Beitragsservice”, formerly GEZ is called in Austria) to collect ORF fees from households without a radio or television but with a computer.

This is not provided for in the Broadcasting Fees Act.

There is a distinction between broadcasting fees and the like, which go to the administration of the federal and state governments (including the GIS), and the program fee for the ORF.

Since the state taxes are different, there are regionally different total costs between 22.45 and 28.65 euros.

The ORF receives the majority of it, namely 18.59 euros.

The Constitutional Court has now ruled that those provisions in the ORF law that link the program fee to the obligation to pay the license fee are unconstitutional.

The regulations will be lifted at the end of 2023, so they must be changed beforehand.

While the Broadcasting Fees Act is a constitutional law that can only be amended with a two-thirds majority (and is not subject to the decisions of the Constitutional Court), the ORF Act can be amended with a simple majority.

Securing the independence of broadcasting

The Constitutional Court bases its arguments on the provisions of the Constitutional Law on broadcasting in a way that also allows conclusions to be drawn about efforts by the right-wing FPÖ and at times also parts of the ÖVP to abolish fee financing and replace it with allocations from the budget.

The notification of the Constitutional Court states: "Financing through program fees has an aspect that ensures the independence of public service broadcasting.

With such financing, it is essential that everyone who can take part in public discourse via radio is included in the statutory financing of the ORF and that no significant group - those people who receive ORF programs via the Internet - are excluded. "

The ORF welcomed the fact that its offers would be financed by all users in the future.

This could close the streaming gap, through which he missed out on annual income of up to six million euros.

The chancellor party ÖVP, which is the media minister in Susanne Raab, initially kept a low profile about the consequences.

They will be examined "with a view to minimizing the burden on the people of our country".

The Greens, who are co-governing as junior partners, spoke out in favor of a "lower household fee for everyone" and hope "that the coalition partner will rethink".

The opposition Neos are also in favor of a household levy.

The FPÖ, on the other hand, criticized a "license to expand the rip-off" and found that there was an "unspeakable alliance between the ORF and the Constitutional Court".