No place for literature on TV – Ingeborg Bachmann Prize under threat

I’ve blogged before about the Ingeborg Bachmann prize for German language literature and how fascinating I find the live readings of the competing texts as well as the jury commentary. Now the only reason that I can follow along with the live readings and jury discussion – since the Days of German Language Literature take place in the city of Klagenfurt in Austria, i.e. quite a bit away from me – is because the readings and jury discussions are broadcast live on TV.

Now those TV broadcasts and the prize itself are under threat, because the Austrian public television network ORF is forced to cut costs. And one of the things they are planning to cut is their support for the Ingeborg Bachmann prize. The Austrian paper Der Standard as well as the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung have more details.

There are a lot of protests about these plans. Several former winners have spoken out in support of the prize and the Austrian writers’ and journalists’ union has written an open letter to the ORF. The complaint is not so much that the ORF is cutting costs, but that they are mainly cutting cultural programming such as the Ingeborg Bachmann prize. Indeed, the Austrian writers’ union points out that the ORF spends 100 million Euros on acquiring the rights for various sports events, whereas the Ingeborg Bachmann prize costs them merely 350000 Euros. Andrea Schurian makes the same point in her editorial at Der Standard. The ORF is happily broadcasting the bizarre anachronism that is the Vienna opera ball (a bunch of celebrities, politician and filthy rich people as well as some white-clad debutantes waltzing at the Vienna opera house) not to mention pricey sports and entertainment programs, while cutting various cultural programs such as the music event Steirischer Herbst, live broadcasts from the Salzburg and Mörbisch festivals, film programs and the Bachmann prize.

Now cultural programming is niche programming. I may think that live broadcasts of Bachmann prize readings and jury discussions are the most exciting thing on TV ever, but the rest of the German speaking world would rather watch Wetten Dass?, football or Formula 1 racing. However, the ORF is a public TV network like the BBC in the UK or ARD and ZDF in Germany. And public TV networks usually have an explicit mission to broadcast niche programming such as culture or religious programs, whereas private TV stations are free to (sort of, there are some caveats) broadcast only programs that bring in high ratings and revenue. So the ORF has a duty to broadcast cultural programming. Theoretically, they also have a duty to broadcast sports and entertainment programs. However, even if the ORF were to get out of entertainment and sports broadcasting altogether, it’s not as if Austrian TV viewers were forced to watch wall to wall Bachmann prize readings and live opera broadcasts. Because in our globalized satellite and cable TV world, Austrian viewers can get their sports and US cop shows and sitcoms and reality TV from the same source as over here in Germany, namely from the private TV channels which are blasted via satellite all over Europe.

In a quirk from pre-satellite TV days, broadcast rights e.g. for US shows or sports events are licensed separately for Austria and Germany. As a result, the ORF broadcasts US shows such as CSI or NCIS, even though Austrian viewers can get those same shows on private TV channels like Sat1 or RTL, which hold the German rights. Ditto for major sports events. Which begets the question why does the ORF spend a lot of money on programming that Austrian viewers can get elsewhere? So there’s definitely room to cut costs and save money without touching cultural events like the Ingeborg Bachmann prize.

The bigger issue here is of course that the whole concept of licensing national rights for films, TV shows, sports events, etc… is increasingly silly in our globalized world. More and more people are getting their programming directly via the internet these days and don’t give a damn about national rights and licenses. And having separate rights for Germany and Austria, when both countries speak the same language (sort of), is really outdated. At least make it German language rights, especially since German and Austrian TV stations broadcast the same dub anyway. Though there are exceptions, for example the Disney-Pixar movie Up had a different dub for Germany and Austria with the old man character speaking with an Austrian accent (and dubbed by a prominent Austrian actor) in the Austrian version.

ETA: Alexander Wrabetz, general director of the ORF, has issued a statement that the ORF will attempt to find a way to continue running the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, perhaps with funding from elsewhere, while the Austrian chapter of the PEN club accuses the ORF of furthering the dumbing down of the population (for which German has a wonderful and untranslatable term, “Volksverdummung”. Considering how much of that is going on in the US, I’m surprised English doesn’t have a word for it).

Finally, there also are critics who consider the Ingeborg Bachmann Award a bit old-fashioned and dull. The Austrian newspaper Die Presse quotes two German critics who allegedly wrote some not very nice things about the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, though I couldn’t find the article in question on the website of the paper.

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3 Responses to No place for literature on TV – Ingeborg Bachmann Prize under threat

  1. Mark says:

    I completely missed this news. I have been watching the Bachmann prize readings readings for maybe 20 years (except for last year). It’s so contrary to what you usually get to see on television.

    I’m often disappointed by people who say that this competition is too elitist, that it is too genre-unfriendly or, in the worst case, that it has even a negative influence on the direction contemporary German language writing goes (too introspective, too boring). I really had these kinds of discussions. But it’s really a niche. Nobody gets hurt. There are only a few people who are interested in this competition anyway and if the winner gets some more attention and (not much compared to other prizes) more sales that’s a good thing.

    And I love bitching about the incompetent jurors 🙂

    So please don’t kill the Bachmann prize on television!

    • Cora says:

      One can’t blame the Bachmann prize alone for certain tendencies in contemporary German language writing. If anything the German book award with its tendency to award dull middle class family sagas set against the backdrop of 20th German history bears far more blame than the Bachmann prize. For while the combination of family saga + history still pretty much guarantees a winning text (see Maja Haderlap and Peter Wawerzinek), there is more experimentation and variety found in the usual crop of Bachmann prize candidates than on the German book award shortlist. Nor is it all genre-unfriendly. Literary crime fiction occasionally pops up among the Bachmann prize nominees. Besides, I’ve never understood the hostility leveled at certain cultural niches. I’m not going to compete in the Bachmann prize anytime soon (I write in the wrong language for starters), but that doesn’t mean that I begrudge the winners and contestants the attention. It’s a big literary world.

      I love bitching about the jurors as well, particularly when they are so obviously and blatantly wrong or clueless. Critic pronounces, “This text is spoiled upon second reading, once you know the final twist.” Me, “Wait a minute, did you really not guess the twist after five minutes or so? Cause it was really bleedingly obvious.”

      As for ORF, they should just let their viewers watch formula 1 or CSI on RTL or withdraw from financing crap like Wetten Dass? and use the money to financer the Bachmann prize readings instead.

  2. Nikki T. Kline says:

    With this procedure, the writers have to convince the jury and the auditors of their contribution’s quality. At this event, not only the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is awarded but also several other literature prizes, in total usually three to five awards. In 2008, the jury was reduced to seven members, the competing writers from eighteen to fourteen. A moderator presents and guides the readings and the discussions of the jury. Since 2006, the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is endowed with 25,000 EUR. In 2009, 56,500 EUR have been awarded to the participants in total.

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