Wrabetz under scrutiny after reelection

Conservative decision-makers are expected to raise the pressure on Alexander Wrabetz after his re-election as head of national broadcaster ORF.

Twenty-nine delegates of ORF’s 35-member foundation council confirmed Wrabetz in office after a two-hour hearing yesterday afternoon (Tues). The other members of the council abstained from voting.

Wrabetz started his first term in 2006 thanks to an unusual cooperation of all main political parties apart from the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). The ÖVP – which has formed a government coalition with the Social Democrats (SPÖ) since 2007 – wanted to help Monika Lindner to another term as ORF general director five years ago. However, the SPÖ teamed up with the Green Party to get Wrabetz in office. Austria’s right-wing rivals, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) surprisingly backed the bid at that time.

The SPÖ announced after yesterday’s decision it appreciated the “wide support” for Wrabetz, a former SPÖ student union official. The ÖVP said the vote meant “another chance” for Wrabetz. The BZÖ announced it was of the opinion that the decision to confirm Wrabetz in office was “right.” The Greens pointed out the re-elected ORF head was now facing vacuous challenges. The left-wing party called on Wrabetz to do more about protecting ORF’s news department from attempted interference of the SPÖ and the ÖVP.

News that 29 of 35 members of the foundation council – which has a function similar to a supervisory board – voted Wrabetz mean that he also managed to convince envoys of the FPÖ and a delegate close to the BZÖ. It was only the second time in the broadcaster’s history that its general director manages to be re-elected. Gerd Bacher can look back on this achievement as well. Bacher headed the ORF with interruptions in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

Wrabetz announced yesterday his chief priority was to ensure ORF’s leadership position in all the sectors it was operating. The broadcaster is doing better than any private rival in television market shares, radio listener numbers and internet usage figures. However, its dominance has waned over the years. While ORF officials have made aware of more private and foreign competition and young people’s preference to go online instead of watching TV, critics have claimed the development is down to the lack of quality of some of the national channel’s programmes.

Nearly 43 per cent of ORF’s overall television programme was entertainment like sitcoms and series while news claimed a share of 20.9 per cent in 2008. The station had a market share among Austrian households with cable and satellite TV of 41.9 per cent that year, down from 43.3 per cent in 2007 (2006: 47.6 per cent). Its share dropped further in 2009 (39.1 per cent) and last year (37.8 per cent). ORF had a domestic market share of 38.1 per cent in the first half of this year, down by 1.1 per cent compared to the same time span of 2010. At the same time, polls show that ORF 2 and ORF 1 are Austrians’ most popular channels, followed by private German programmes Sat.1, RTL and ProSieben. Meanwhile, the market shares of Austrian private channels ATV and Puls 4 are improving. However, Red Bull’s ServusTV has failed to win over a significant number of viewers in its first two years of broadcasting.

Wrabetz is expected to be confronted with demands to assign people aligned to Austria’s leading political parties as it has always been the case at ORF. Elmar Oberhauser has to resign as news director of ORF after he made attempted interventions by the SPÖ public. Christian Wehrschütz, the only election rival of Wrabetz in yesterday’s foundation council ballot, is close to the FPÖ. Wehrschütz, ORF’s Balkan region correspondent, failed to garner any support among delegates of the council. The FPÖ is understood to support the prospering career of Thomas Prantner at ORF. The online department boss is set to get a new position in the scaled-down board of the channel as the branch he currently heads will be dissolved as part of ongoing regrouping procedures. Prantner may aim to become ORF chief in 2016 when the current term of Wrabetz ends. The FPÖ was expected to nominate Prantner already this time around.

Some commentators claimed the reelection of Wrabetz was a fiasco for the ÖVP. The conservative party, which always had a critical stance towards the ORF boss, failed to find an opposing candidate with chances to avoid a second Wrabetz term.

Reports had it that the party headed by Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger failed to convince former Telekom Austria (TA) CEO Boris Nemsic to challenge Wrabetz for the hot seat at ORF. It also emerged that media business manager Michael Grabner rejected an appeal by the ÖVP to run for the position. Now the conservative party allegedly considers other measures to slash the SPÖ’s allegedly immense influence on decision-making at the board of the ORF and its news department.

Richard Grasl is the only high-profile decision-maker at ORF who is close to the ÖVP. The former ORF Lower Austria editor acts as the broadcaster’s finance manager. According to reports, Grasl’s opinion on content of ORF’s news programmes has not fallen on deaf ears at editors as board members try to satisfy the ÖVP.

Wrabetz vehemently denied any kind of political pressure. The businessman – whose parents are believed to be close to the FPÖ – claimed he was unaware of any attempts to apply pressure to news programme editors. However, several newspapers and magazines reported that his reelection occurred thanks to the green light by SPÖ Chancellor Werner Faymann, the party’s Media Affairs State Secretary Josef Ostermayer and its General Secretary, Laura Rudas.

Nikolaus Pelinka, who currently represents the SPÖ in ORF’s foundation board, could soon become the broadcaster’s general secretary, according to media press. The former spokesman for SPÖ Education and Culture Minister Claudia Schmied has reportedly prided himself with being consulted by ORF decision-makers about who to invite to the station’s live debates and for interviews.

Only a few weeks ago, Gerhard Zeiler ruled out a candidacy. The Austrian businessman – who acted as ORF general director between 1994 and 1998 – told magazine profil heading the ORF would be an impossible task due to the politicians’ strong pressure. Zeiler manages the RTL Group, Europe’s strongest media company. The ÖVP explained it would have welcomed a candidacy of the entrepreneur who was secretary of late SPÖ Chancellor Fred Sinowatz and ex-SPÖ boss Franz Vranitzky.