A West German federal court disallowed the breakup of a regional broadcasting corporation today, effectively blocking efforts to introduce commercial television into this country.
The case involved a move by two West German states, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein, to reorganize North German Radio, the broadcast station that serves both areas plus the city-state of Hamburg.
While in its details the dispute is regional, it took on national significance by threatening to end the public nature of West German broadcasting.
For three decades, West German radio and television have been controlled by regional networks, operated by public corporations and subject to specific state government directives.The stations are funded largely by fees assessed against owners of radio and television sets.
Additionally, at the national level, two broadcast networks are set up as cooperatives of the regional stations.
West German television has relatively high-quality programs -- heavy on documentary and news analysis shows in comparison with American television -- and is distinguished by a variety of cultural offerings. It is nearly free of advertising.
Nevertheless, West Germany's political parties have never stopped vying for greater influence over the management of the networks. The opposition Christian Democratic Union in particular for years has accused the stations of left-leaning news reporting, attributing this bias to excessive influence by the Social Democrats.
With the North German radio contract set to expire in December, the Christian Democrat-run states of Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein saw a chance to break with Hamburg, where the Social Democrats are in power, and establish a new broadcasting corporation.
Ernst Albrecht, the prime minister of Lower Saxony, announced his intention to license a private company to "break thee monopoly" of the existing network.
The possibility of private broadcasting irritated such leading Social Democrats as Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who regards most commercial television with particular distaste. He once described it as "a danger more acute than atomic energy."
In the last year, Schmidt has delayed introduction of cable and satellite broadcast systems in West Germany.
He halted plans to link West Germany's 11 largest cities in an experimental cable television network, although a project tying four cities continues.
Schmidt also persuaded France to help block foreign commercial television producers from leasing channels on a French-West German satellite that goes into operation in 1983. Radio Luxembourg had sought a channel for the broadcast of German-language television programs.
Today's court ruling by a federal administrative tribunal in West Berlin never addressed the issue of public versus private broadcasting, however. It turned instead on a technicality of contract law, leaving the larger issue still unresolved.
Gerhard Stoltenberg, the state premier of Schleswig-Holstein, said he was surprised by the court decision, but stated he would try again to negotiate with Hamburg and Lower Saxony to preserve the regional character of North German Radio and still protect against biased coverage.