Radio & TV in Germany
If you live off base and don't have an AFN satellite receiver, there's plenty of excellent English programming available, but you'll need German cable or satellite reception to get most of it.
With ever increasing ways to receive radio and TV channels, English-speaking residents of Germany are now happily spoilt for choice. You can get connected to quality programming with relatively little expense and if you are willing to shell out a bit more, well the "Sky" is the limit.
You won't find much, if any, television in English without cable, satellite reception or a broadband internet connection, though some English radio may be available terrestrially especially in and around U.S. or British military bases. Things get a little better if you want to pay for basic German cable TV service, or have it already included in your rental package, with usually a few English language news channels available though little in the way of general entertainment. But if you have access to an existing satellite dish or you are able to install one then there is a lot on offer, much of it for free and it is the widely preferred option.
The first thing to check before deciding anything is your TV. The broadcast standard in Germany is "PAL" (B/G), which isn't compatible with the North American "NTSC system". So if you have a U.S. bought TV that is not a multi-system capable of processing both types of signal then you would need to obtain either a PAL/multi-system TV or a PAL/NTSC converter. Another benefit from having a multi-system is that they are usually dual voltage and anyone who has ever had to deal with voltage transformers will know what a valuable feature that is. A good quality PAL/NTSC digital/HD converter can be ordered online for around $100. With some cheaper products you may find that there are synchronizing issues between sound and vision.
The television stations that can be received without cable or satellite are the ARD, ZDF, the Secondary Programs and, in some areas, RTL, all of which broadcast entirely in German. (These are also receivable by cable and satellite, usually with vastly better reception.) If you have invested in a digital or HD DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcasting-Terrestrial) receiver, the channel selection you can get will vary greatly depending on where you live. Retailers will usually provide you with a local channel line-up. You can expect to get up to 30 + channels exclusively in the German language. Digital terrestrial receivers and antennas can be purchased for anywhere between €40 and €100+ EUR at any large, local electronic retailer. Hardware performance will vary as much as the strength of the digital terrestrial signal. Depending on where you live, you may not be able to receive much, if anything at all. Be sure to talk extensively with your retail sales persons and be sure that you express clearly what area you live in.
The Deutsche Telekom monopoly on German cable TV has been broken down in recent years into several smaller companies, the largest of which is Kabel Deutschland. Their offerings (often also including Broadband services) are very similar to each other and whom you choose to go with will depend largely on which one has a network in your area.
There are about 40 channels on the cable (again, depending on where you're located). Most of them broadcast in German, but you usually get the likes of CNN, CNBC, MTV and BBC World, and some cable providers offer a choice of language on certain programs. (Movies in the original language or programming on Eurosport in English, for example) Whether or not you can receive the non-German broadcast may depend on your receiver, decoder or TV. Sometimes on cable German Sky is also available offering digital/HD pay TV and broadcasts in German although some programming is also available with the original English soundtrack much like a DVD. It has a large number of channels, offering everything from sports and movies, to children's programming and erotic shows. In the past few years, German cable companies have begun offering English Language Packages that include up to 16 additional English language channels. Prices start from about €4 monthly for these special language packages. This is in addition to the required basic cable package. Receivers usually run from about €100 although you can sometimes get them for free if you sign a 1 or 2 year minimum contract.
Currently the most popular method to receive a large number of high-quality, English-language programs is to have a satellite dish installed. It is relatively inexpensive to buy the dish, LNB and receiver and there are a lot of package deals available in the German retail outlets.
You should consider having a professional installer mount and align your satellite dish as precision work is required and without the right tools and experience, you could well spend more time and effort getting nowhere as opposed to spending a little bit on having it done properly and having it last past the first big storm. Make sure you have your landlord's permission to put up a dish, or to adjust the existing one to the appropriate satellite.
You will be faced with a large choice of receivers. Digital receivers start off at about €50 and somewhat more expensive are digital/HD receivers costing over €100. You can spend more on a digital/HD receiver with twin tuner and hard drive that will give you features like freeze live TV, recording of a single episode or whole series at the touch of a button, 8 day on screen electronic program guide (EPG) and many more features including the ability to watch and record simultaneously on different channels. If you are on the go and want to watch what you want, when you want, then once you have it you will wonder how you ever managed without it
The most popular satellites beaming programming to Germany are ASTRA 19.2E and ASTRA 2 at 28° East from South. If you have a large enough dish and the proper LNB and receiver set-up it could be possible to catch the signals from both the satellites.
On ASTRA 2 there are over 140 free to air English radio & TV channels packaged into what is now known as Freesat. Yes it is free and it is quite good programming with all the BBC channels, multiple ITV, kids and movie channels including 3 in HD. You can find out more about what is available on their webpage: http://www.freesat.co.uk/.
You should be aware that between the end of 2013 and early 2014 the broadcast signal was switched to new satellites (Astra 2E and 2F). In 2015 some of the channels moved to the new Astra 2G. All the "beams" from these new satellites are more strongly focused on Great Britain than those of the previously used satellites. Many viewers in the middle and eastern parts of Germany have lost reception because of the change. There are normally no problems in the western part of Germany with a normal size dish (60 to 80 cm). Farther east in Germany the signal can be picked up with much larger dishes. But, there is no reception in the eastern third of Germany. You can read more about this new change at http://satellitenempfang.info.
On ASTRA 19.2, Sky Deutschland TV (not to be confused with UK Sky TV) also carries a number of English language channels that include ESPN America, National Geographic, FOX (not the American channel) channel with different, older TV series that include Lost, West Wing and Entourage as well as TNT that also carries a variety of TV series, TCM, a sci-fi channel, MTV channels and a number of movie channels. This is pay TV and you would need to subscribe and get a receiver that can accept the viewing card. A typical satellite package with 38 channels costs only about €20 per month. There are Premium add-ons that cost a few Euros more which include additional film and sports programming. Many of the channels have the "original language" option so there are quite a few programs with English language audio. There are some channels that broadcast in HD. You can get dozens of free channels - from Germany and many other countries. Some English language programs are also free, but are mostly limited to news and shopping programs.
Several specialized magazines are available that describe in detail the offerings on different satellites and information on decoders. They also carry advertisements from different companies that offer the services.
But it does not stop there. You can get a lot more, although unfortunately you have to pay a higher monthly subscription and a yearly hosting fee. And there is the not so small matter that you are not living in the UK. Normally to subscribe to the UK Sky TV service you have to sign an agreement that you will only use the service within the UK or Ireland and they will send a technician round to install everything for you, including connection to a telephone line for the interactive services. That does not stop many UK residents who find themselves later living in Germany from bringing their specialized Sky receivers and viewing cards with them and they work just fine apart from them not being able to use interactive services that require a UK phone connection. If you do not have access to a UK address to subscribe from then all is not lost as there are hosting agencies that will arrange it all for you. They take care of the whole activation process and customer service afterwards. It costs around €200 for each year of hosting, but if you want to get multiple sports, movie, entertainment and HD channels and you don't have a summer home in the UK then it is the best way to go. A hosting agency would also supply all the necessary equipment required and it has to be said that the latest generation of twin tuner Sky HD+ hard drive receivers are of excellent quality and do the job that they are designed to do very well. You will also need a credit card for Sky to book out the monthly subscription fees. New to all Sky subscribers in February of 2011 is the Sky Atlantic channel, which is primarily HBO content packaged for Europe. To see all that Sky offer then check out their website: www.sky.com.
A slingshot box can be used to connect over the Internet to an Audio/Video device, such as a DVR, a cable set-top box, or a satellite receiver back home. Once connected, you can then stream video & audio to your computer anywhere in the world that has a high-speed Internet connection. The down side of course is that firstly you have to maintain an active service back home, or at least be able to plug into a friend or a relative's. You would also have to leave that TV reception appliance back home either on or at least in standby. On top of that if anything needs manual adjustment such as a satellite dish or a tripped power switch, then with you being halfway across the world it may well take a bit of organization to get it put right. In a nutshell then, it is not the most practical or user friendly way of watching everyday TV but if you are short of other options then it may well be a welcome one.
English-language radio is also available - a little of it terrestrially, more from the cable and much more in excellent digital quality by satellite. The latter offers quality music, news, weather, sports, talk, entertainment and children's programming. Among the many providers offering satellite radio in English are: The BBC, Bloomberg and CNN. There are English language programs from places as diverse as Ireland, Switzerland and India. The British and American Forces operate radio networks too. AFN is headquartered in Mannheim and the British Forces Broadcasting Service is in Herford. Of particular interest to Americans is the extremely powerful AFN AM signal on 873, 1107 and 1143 KHz. American sports events, news, talk shows and music are featured on this station. Programs can be picked up wherever troops are located: AFN in the middle and South; BFBS in the north. (AFN also has an FM service of nearly wall-to-wall music programming but the transmitters are low powered and you have to live close to a US military installation to pick it up.)
As an owner of a television set and/or radio and/or PC sound card, video/TV software, you are required to register and pay a quarterly user fee (referred to as GEZ gebühren), and there are heavy penalties if caught not paying it. For multiple radios, TV's and PC sound cards in one house, you will have to pay €53.94 quarterly, due in the middle of the quarter billed. Applications to register your TV or radio can be picked up at any German post office and many banks, or often you will automatically receive an application in the post after registering at your address with the local authorities. Payment is made by transfer after receiving the bill or you can sign up for payment by Lastschriftverfahren (direct debit). The regulating authority for these payments is the GEZ (Gerbühren Einzugs Zentrale), Freimersdorfer Weg 6, 50829 Köln. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also contact them by telephone, Monday-Friday, 9:00 - 19:00 at: 0 180/501 65 65. This number is not a free call and you will be charged 14 ct. per minute.
The public corporations ARD, ZDF and Third Program are financed primarily by the GEZ fees collected. Cable subscription rates run about €20 to €30 a month, and this is in addition to the GEZ fees. Satellite dish set-ups can range from €100 to over €500 depending on the size of the dish and number/type of receivers you want or need. Satellite viewers pay the user's fee as well, but there are no additional charges over and above the initial costs for equipment and installation unless you subscribe to pay TV.
Our thanks to Phil Cassaday of ExpatSat for helping with this article.
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