Out for the Institute of Broadcasting Technology

Munich The public service broadcasting system is currently in the middle of savings campaigns. All the more dramatic that additional financial burdens now threaten – which may amount to a double-digit million euro amount. The reason for this is the end of the Institute for Broadcasting Technology GmbH (IRT) in Munich as of December 31, 2020. It is a renowned, 64-year-old engineering company that, for example, helped to develop MPEG technology for MP3 players.

After a more than five-hour general meeting last Friday, there is now a very uncomfortable moment of accounting truth. The dissolution and liquidation of the GmbH are inevitable, after the 14 partners – public broadcasters from Germany, Switzerland and Austria – could not find “a viable model for a continuation”, as it says in the IRT press release.

Despite “intensive efforts”, it was not possible to develop a resilient economic future perspective. The termination of all shareholders, which was pronounced at the end of 2019, remains, and a social plan is being drawn up for around 100 employees. At some point in the near future, an application for the dissolution of the company will be submitted to the commercial register court.

“In the end, everyone thought: Better to end with horror than to end with horror,” says an ARD manager. From January 1st it will be IRT GmbH iL – in liquidation.

For ARD in particular – the largest group of shareholders – this is an oath of disclosure. After fraud cases involving sporting directors Jürgen Emig and Wilfried Mohren, embezzlement in the children’s channel and the surreptitious advertising scandal at Bavaria in the 2000s, the IRT case is an even greater challenge for the system. The liquidation of the technology institute costs a lot of money and image – and reveals serious shortcomings in crisis management.

Patents with economic potential?

In the event of liquidation, for example, pension claims of 120 million euros, inventor’s compensation claims of former employees in the amount of an estimated nine million and general processing costs in the amount of at least 30 million euros would have to be met. The exact amount also depends on negotiations with the works council and the Verdi trade union, which is not exactly known to be gentle. In total, these debit items add up to around 160 million euros.

The most recent balance sheet for the 2020 financial year shows a total of 80 million euros for pension provisions and more than eleven million for other provisions. In the event of a liquidation, patents are the main consideration for the proceeds of the sale. Some could “have economic potential”, it says in the 2018 annual report. The previous research results are to be made available to the shareholders, or to the European broadcasting industry, according to the IRT. But what are they worth? And what might come up there?

The liquidator used should decide on such questions. Theoretically, this could be IRT managing director Michael Hagemeyer. After his time as Director Technology and Production at ProSieben Sat1 Media, he went to Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) in 2005, from where he switched to IRT in January 2018.

At that time, the system was shaken by a patent exploitation scandal. A patent attorney had made hefty profits without IRT and the shareholders benefiting from it. In an out-of-court settlement, the lawyer, a former IRT employee, paid back 60 million euros of the requested 200 million euros. The BR emphasized that judicial offices of other institutions, ZDF and the former SWF, were also active in the patent exploitation issues. Processes with the Italian rights owner Sisvel continue to run before the OLG Karlsruhe and the LG Turin. The chance? Not very high.

For the director of the BR Ulrich Wilhelm, 59, who will leave in February 2021, the IRT flop is a flaw in his balance sheet. The former spokesman for the federal government had worked very hard to continue with an IRT that had been reduced to around 50 to 60 employees. But he is isolated in the ARD circle.

Wilhelm said in background discussions internally that, in case of doubt, it would be better to save on ARD community costs than on the BR. Wilhelm declared officially in the dpa interview that the BR had “made disproportionate savings in terms of technology and administration for years” and tried until the end to spare the program: “It is reaching its limits.” He was also the only one in the group of directors to vote against the establishment of one Cultural platform in Saxony-Anhalt.

In addition, none of his chief colleagues understood how Wilhelm persistently rejected the role of the BR as “lead institution” for the crisis subsidiary IRT by referring to the GmbH law. He shy away from responsibility, was the accusation often heard, which Wilhelm strictly denied. The BR emphasizes the responsibility of all shareholders. In any case, under such conditions there could be no question of the necessary trust for a fresh start.

After the definitive exit from ZDF and probably also the Swiss SRG, there was no solution in which the remaining partners no longer had to pay. So far, eleven million euros of support had been needed annually. Then they chose one: the safe end.

More: Pro Sieben Sat 1 writes red numbers – advertising revenue is lost.

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