Austria's media policy is characterised by strong regulation with few self-regulatory elements. The strong market player ORF, governed by its council, dominates radio and television. Despite a law restricting full time politicians to become members of the council, the ORF became strongly politicised after the new law was enacted in 2001.
Journalists frequently claim that the political influence of the government and attempts to streamline transmissions – in particular in the area of daily news broadcasts – is increasing. In 2005, a prominent ORF news anchor man publicly announced his frustration with direct interventions. In the following months some 80,000 Austrians signed a resolution called SOS ORF calling for more distance between political powers and the ORF.
In August 2016, the long-standing director general, Alexander Wrabetz, was elected for a third five-year office term. His candidacy was supported by the Social Democrats and representatives of the Green Party.
Media and politics are close relatives in Austria. One good example of this close relationship is the subsidy scheme for the press. Since 1974, the state provides all daily and weekly newspapers with annual, direct payments. Subsidies go to all daily papers on their request (smaller amount) and to a few papers considered especially important for the diversity of opinions (larger amount). The latest reform of the press subsidy law happened in 2003. Since then, subsidies are provided for the distribution of newspapers, for contributions to regional diversity and for the professional development of journalists (schools of journalism) and special projects. In 2016, about €9m were allocated to the press according to this subsidy scheme.
In addition to this rather limited amount of money, public institutions invest another €200m in terms of advertising in the press and other media outlets. A federal law of 2011 obliges all public institutions to report quarterly to the authorities the total amount as well as the beneficiary of all public money spent on advertising. These data are published and allow for constant analysis of “big spenders” and “big receivers”. Heute, Kronenzeitung and Oesterreich are among the latter, the municipality of Vienna among the former.
Another controversial media policy topic concerns the high degree of media ownership concentration in Austria. Although early legislation about private broadcasting contained elements to increase the number of media owners and restrict dominant media organisations at the regional level, most of these barriers have been removed. The reality is that the largest newspaper Kronenzeitung also owns the only terrestrial national radio channel KroneHit. In almost all provinces the dominant newspaper publisher also owns the main radio channel and in some cases also the regional television channel. This cross-media concentration happened despite the fact that the cartel law in Austria requires its Cartel Court to check whether the merger or acquisition in question would endanger journalistic and media diversity.
Austrian cable networks must carry all national channels, including the two channels of the ORF, and relevant local and regional channels. Other than this general rule, cable operators are free to allocate their bandwidth to television, radio or other services. Some large cable networks offer “triple play services,” including radio and television as well as telephony and broadband Internet connection. In accordance with European law, all foreign channels can be received in Austria without restrictions.