Radio and Television in Germany

Public and Commercial Radio and TV in German Lands

Many people still remember a time when German and Austrian television programming came only from the public channels. There were no commercial TV stations at all until the late 1980s. Times have changed!

RBB TV in Berlin

The “Abendschau” evening newscast from RBB TV in Berlin. PHOTO: RBB

Digital TV
All terrestrial TV broadcasting in Germany today is digital (DVB-T). In Berlin and other large German cities over 25 digital television channels can be received over the air, but most Germans watch television via cable or satellite. German HDTV broadcasts began in fall 2009, but HDTV is not available over the air! More…

The “Good” Old Days
It was not until 1987 that German television viewers had the option of viewing anything other than the three public TV channels (ARD, ZDF and the “Third Program” regional channels). Radio was similarly limited to three stations, even in large German cities. Austria and Switzerland were even more limited. The Austrian TV network ORF only began offering a third TV channel in October 2011 (plus a sports channel). Switzerland’s single DRS German television channel only began its all-day broadcasts in 1993. Switzerland also has channels for French and Italian.

Most TV viewers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland watch TV via cable or satellite. Today they can also watch a variety of private (commercial) German-language channels, including ntv (news), RTL and ProSieben (both of which carry a lot of American series in German), plus premium movie channels and pay-per-view. English-language channels are also available: CNN International, BBC, Sky, and some other sports and news channels. 3Sat is a cable/satellite service with a mix of programming from the Austrian, Swiss, and German public TV networks.

International DVD Players and TVs
The GW Store: International, multisystem DVD/Blu-ray players and flat-screen HDTVs

Similar to the BBC model in Britain, to help finance their public radio and television stations (die Öffentlich-Rechtlichen), the Austrian, German, and Swiss broadcasters collect fees (in reality a type of tax) for the privilege of listening to the radio or watching television. Reflecting the era of computers, streaming video and the internet, in 2013 the German TV fee system changed to a per-household charge, regardless of the number of computers, radios or TV sets in an apartment, place of business or house. For more about this, see Watching TV in Germany.)

The two German public networks, ARD and ZDF, receive additional revenue from both radio and television advertising. (Switzerland allows no advertising on public radio.) Broadcast advertising on the public television channels is very restricted. TV commercials appear only in 5 or 10-minute blocks, and only before or after a program, never during. However, on the German commercial TV channels, the constant barrage of advertising is as bad or even worse than in the US.

PAL TV isn’t your pal
The German PAL color TV standard, used throughout most of Europe, is incompatible with the television and video standards used in non-PAL countries such as France (SECAM) and the United States (ATSC). Read more below…

Germany’s PAL Television Standard and DVB-T
Until recently, the world was divided into three main television standards, but the advent of digital TV has only made things worse!

PAL TV picture

An old PAL TV image with Curt Jurgens starring in a classic black-and-white German movie broadcast by RBB in Berlin. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo, RBB

Why such a confusing state of television in the world? Well, it’s really a matter of three nations and national pride. The Germans demonstrated one of the first TV productions in 1928 in Berlin. There were German television broadcasts in the 1930s, but then World War II brought TV to halt. After the war, the Americans were the first to develop a broadcast TV standard and later a color television standard that was also compatible with existing black-and-white TV receivers. Soon the world had three different TV standards:

  • NTSC (now digital ATSC), used in North and Central America, Mexico, and Japan
  • PAL (Phase Alternating Lines), a German-invented system used in the UK and most of Europe, Africa, Australia, and South America – now the digital DVB standard.
  • SECAM, used in France (its inventor), eastern Europe, and Russia

The price the US paid for being first was that the other systems, developed later, could learn from and improve on NTSC — which some wags call “Never Twice the Same Color.” Although the NTSC color standard was inconsistent and technologically inferior to PAL and SECAM (except for a faster frame-per-second rate), many technical developments improved the NTSC picture over the years. The NTSC TV standard also came to be used in Canada, Mexico, Japan and in parts of Central America.

During the analog television age, the world had three main TV standards (with various subdivisions), none of which was compatible with the other. This affected DVD and video as well as television. Many people hoped that the advent of digital television would bring fewer differences. But that was not to be.

Instead of the former three analog TV standards, the world now has at least four different digital TV standards: ATSC (North America), DTMB (China), DVB (Europe, Asia, Australia), and ISDB (Japan, South America). Although Germany, most other European countries and the USA have already gone completely digital, about half of the world’s TV viewers still watch old-fashioned analog TV. The target date for turning off all analog TV broadcasts around the globe varies, but runs as late as 2020 for some countries.

Digital TV in Germany: DVB
Beginning in 2003 in greater Berlin, Germany phased in digital-only over-the-air television (DVB-T) region by region. Terrestrial TV in Germany has been all-digital since the end of 2008, but more than 90 percent of German households still get their TV via cable or satellite. Austria completed its digital TV conversion in 2011. (Worldwide, about 50 percent of TV viewers now watch digital TV.) No matter how they receive their TV, most Germans still have the same old standard 576-line PAL picture, whether it’s digital or not. HDTV broadcasts (720p) only began in Germany with the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. HDTV broadcasting is still limited to cable or satellite TV.

In order to watch terrestrial, cable, or sat TV in Germany, you need a flat-screen TV with a digital (DVB) tuner or a converter box for older tube-type TVs. But your American TV set, even a newer ATSC digital one, won’t work in Germany, Austria, Switzerland or anywhere else in Europe. The new DVB television standard in use throughout Europe is not compatible with the new ATSC standard used in the US and Canada. For more about watching TV in Germany, see Watching TV in Germany.

HDTV in Germany
Although Germany took the lead in broadcasting over-the-air digital TV, that brought German viewers few real benefits — and no high-definition (HD) programming at all. HDTV in Germany is limited and currently only available via satellite or cable, not over the air. Germany’s DVB-T (terrestrial) is broadcast in a wide-screen (16:9) format for some programming (PALplus), but at the standard PAL resolution of 576i. For more about HDTV in Germany, see our HDTV page.

More | HDTV in Germany

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