Since the break up of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF) monopoly in 1993, the Austrian media scene operates in three categories:
- a public broadcasting and print media sector (ORF, gazettes);
- a private, profit-making sector (private radio, TV and publishing); and
- a non-profit media sector (free radio, print media for culture etc.).
The Österreichische Rundfunk (ORF) is a statutory public institution and the largest media provider in Austria. It operates with one provincial studio in each province and since 1975 with a studio in Bolzano / Bozen (South Tyrol). The ORF produces four television channels and three national and nine regional radio channels. In addition, it is the largest shareholder in the Austria Press Agency (APA).
The role of statutory public broadcasting has been a subject of debate in Austria for many years. The ORF has been through several crises and – not only in view of the high level of competition from private broadcasters – critics are also worried that the independence of media coverage could suffer if the ORF is funded by the government, causing discussions about abolishing the licence fees (GIS).
Permission was granted for country-wide private TV broadcasting via the Private Television Act (2001). Among other things, the act includes extensive regulations related to digital terrestrial television (DVB-T), which was gradually being introduced in Austria by 2010. Licences have been granted to several regional and local private radio stations via the Private Radio Broadcasting Act (2001). According to the Austrian country report of the Media Pluralism Monitor 2017, the dual system of public and private television broadcasters has led to a decline in the market share of the ORF (at a level of 31.4%) and, in 2017, to a merger of the two biggest private TV companies (ATV and PULS4, which are now owned by the German ProSiebenSat.1 Media company).
In the non-profit media sector, special reference should be made to Austrian free radio: 15 stations are currently broadcasting and are available to more than four million listeners. About 3 000 radio workers (mostly as freelancers) produce high quality radio programmes in 25 languages, which have repeatedly received prizes. The programme philosophy is anchored in the Charter of the Free Radio Stations in Austria (1995, new edition 2007). Free radio stations are complementary to the media service of the statutory public, as well as the commercial operators and are fundamentally non-commercial.
The supervisory media authority (Austrian Communications Authority / KommAustria) established in 2001 and controlled by the Federal Chancellery, awards permits for private television and radio, functions as a legal oversight body for the private radio operators and is responsible for both the preparation and introduction of digital radio and the administration of radio frequencies,. Since 2004, KommAustria has been responsible for the allocation of press and journalism subsidies (see below) and it controls the ORF and private broadcasters’ adherence to the advertising regulations. Since October 2010, KommAustria has been entrusted with the legal oversight of the ORF and its subsidiaries and with the legal oversight of private providers of audiovisual media services in the Internet as well as with tasks under the Television Exclusive Rights Act. Moreover, KommAustria is responsible for the press subsidy and operates as the Board of Control for Collecting Societies. It grants a distribution subsidy, a special subsidy for maintaining the regional diversity of daily newspapers and a quality subsidy for press clubs, training institutions and internal editorial training.
According to the Media Pluralism Monitor 2017 (MPM), risks to media pluralism in Austria are primarily due to horizontal – but also cross-media – concentration, restricted access to media for minorities, the lack of protection of the right to information, insufficiencies in broadband coverage, political and – to a lesser extent – commercial influence over editorial content (not least because of the distribution of state advertising to media outlets), endangered editorial autonomy, threats to the independence of public service media governance and funding, limited access to media for women and a missing overall concept (and resources) for media literacy. On the other hand, the MPM emphasises that the foundations of the democratic media system are intact and strong, and freedom of expression is well protected. The public service broadcaster feels responsible for providing access to media for people with disabilities, and there is a rich and varied supply of local media services, including a lively community media sector.