Public TV worth paying for: Swiss voters nix bid to end fees

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GENEVA (AP) — Swiss voters on Sunday handily rejected a proposal brought by free-market advocates to end mandatory fees to finance publicly supported TV and radio programming, a result that brought a sigh of relief to Europe's state-backed broadcasters.

Final figures indicated that 71 percent of participating Swiss voters rejected the "No Billag" initiative, which was named for the company that collects the TV and radio license fees and championed by far-right populists.

It was one of many referendums held under Switzerland's form of direct democracy.

A "yes" would have ended fees of about 450 francs ($480) per year that are levied on Swiss households. Large businesses also are required to pay.

Far-right populists had sought an end to the fees, arguing that publicly supported broadcasters have an overly dominant position in Swiss media and more competition was needed. They insisted the state-backed broadcasters should rely more on advertising or charge audiences for specific programs, movies and musical offerings.

Fee proponents countered that the Swiss should support domestic broadcasters and programming, particularly in a country with a high cost of living and four official languages — German, French, Italian and Romansh. They also worried that Swiss distinctiveness would be swallowed up by giving broadcasters in neighboring countries a big entrée into the Swiss market.

The vote was a particular threat for SRG SSR, the country's association of publicly supported broadcasters, which gets some 1.2 billion francs and 75 percent of its budget from the licensing fees each year. The funds go to support nearly three dozen regional TV and radio networks.

The umbrella group and its director-general, Gilles Marchand, immediately promised reforms at what some critics call a bloated organization. He announced budget reductions and plans to streamline the association and to reinvest 100 million francs. The household license fee already is set to fall to 365 francs per year in 2019.

Only a few months ago, polls suggested the initiative would pass. SRG SSR executives and defenders of public broadcasting mounted a powerful media blitz to change voters' minds.

The head of German public broadcaster ZDF, Thomas Bellut, hailed the outcome, saying Sunday that "the Swiss have sent a signal and made clear how important public broadcasters are for a pluralistic society."

In Germany, where households are generally required to pay 210 euros ($260) a year, the right-wing Alternative for Germany party has campaigned to abolish the fee, while accusing public broadcasters of being overfunded and spreading government propaganda.

Outside a Geneva polling station, voter Stephen Perrig, a 55-year-old neurologist, said paying fees for good programming was "like in health: If you want quality, you have to pay."


Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.

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