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ZDF and social cohesion

An exploratory study to determine medial integrative capacities


An essential part of the mandate of public service media is to foster coexistence in pluralistic societies as well as a culture of understanding (integration mandate). The objective of the study is to explore the integrative role of ZDF and thus to describe the social relevance of ZDF's offer more comprehensively than up to now.

The integrative role of public service broadcasting is of particular relevance on the background of two developments:

(1) The fragmentation of the media landscape makes it increasingly difficult to reach all generations and as many groups of the population as possible. This makes it more difficult to implement the integration mandate of PSM.

(2) Not only in the USA but also in Europe and Germany we are currently witnessing a tendency towards polarization and division of society (esp. by right-wing populist parties). The result: social cohesion is decreasing.

Today, the integration mandate is more important than ever for our liberal and pluralistic society. This gives cause for reflection on how social cohesion is currently perceived in society and whether there is a positive correlation between using ZDF-offers and the degree of integration of the users. Among others, the focus is on questions such as the importance of a programme-mix of informative and entertainment for integration, and how important entertainment- and sport-offers are in this context besides information. Also, an overall objective is to better understand the impact of media for social integration and thereby to promote the discourse on how media contributes to social cohesion. Further specialist articles on the study are published in the November issue of "Media Perspektiven".

Study design

Together with the Leibniz Institute for Media Research/Hans-Bredow-Institut (HBI) and the research institute ‘mindline media’, ZDF conducted telephone interviews with 1.205 persons  aged 14 and over between December 2018 and January 2019.

Initial situation

The starting point of the study is the Cloud TV report by professors Dörr, Holznagel and Picot “Legitimation und Auftrag des öffentlich-rechtlichen Fernsehens in Zeiten der Cloud” (Legitimation and mandate of public service television in times of the cloud)” from 2016. This report identifies three functions of the mandate:

(1) Opinion-formation function (democratic function): Contributing to individual and public opinion formation and to informed political opinion

(2) Cultural mandate: Not only presenting and reporting on cultural events, but also conveying the basic values of our constitution and our free and liberal society

(3) Integration mandate: Contributing to promoting social cohesion

All three functions are closely linked and essential for a free and democratic society to function.

So far, the media policy discussion has primarily focused on ZDF's democratic function and thus primarily on the quality journalism and the opinion-forming function of its news and  information content. Yet, this argument cannot sufficiently capture the social function of sports and entertainment. By broadening the perspective and including the ‘cultural mandate’ (conveying basic constitutional and societal values) and the ‘integration mandate’ (contributing to promoting of social cohesion) the social impact of the diverse facets of ZDF's content offers become more apparent.

Key findings

(1) The vast majority of respondents assess social virtues and values such as respectful interaction with one another, fairness, friendliness, helpfulness, etc. as extremely important for their personal as well as social life. Younger audience groups – who use ZDF's content less than average – regard social values even higher than the population average.

(2) According to the interviewees, social cohesion in Germany has decreased in recent years. Currently, only approximately a third of the population is satisfied with the state of social cohesion.

(3) From the perspective of the population, the linear and non-linear offers of the ZDF media family evidently contribute to promoting social cohesion and to conveying values - and this also applies to younger age groups. The audience of the ZDF media family attribute a higher integrative capacity to ZDF and its content than those who seldom or rarely use ZDF offers.

(4) The audience of the ZDF media family are in many respects more socially active than non- or rare-viewers.

(5) ZDF's contribution to social cohesion and the conveyance of values are by no means limited to informational and cultural-educational programmes. In the opinion of the respondents this also comes about in fictional and entertainment programmes, as well as in sport broadcasts. "Variety viewers" who use both ZDF's informational and entertainment content are more socially active than entertainment-only and information-only viewers.

(6) ZDF – contrary to a widespread belief - had a higher approval rate for a number of characteristics with regard to issues of integrative competence and relevance for their own lives with people in eastern Germany than in the western part of the country.


The integration mandate of public service media has not lost its significance in times of growing fragmentation of media usage on one hand and increasing polarization in politics on the other hand. Integration is more important than ever. ZDF contributes both objectively and in the respondents' subjective perception to promoting social cohesion. In the view of the population, ZDF still is a central "venue” for cohesion – also for younger target groups.

This clearly shows that entertainment offers, sports broadcasts and the genre mix of informational and entertainment content are important for ZDF viewers and are thus also important for ZDF's future. The study comes to the conclusion that these offers are socially relevant and contribute to cohesion. Furthermore, it proves empirically that ZDF viewers regard fiction and entertainment as an integral part of ZDF's core brand that they do not want to do without.

The study shows also that "variety viewers" watching both informational and entertainment offers of the ZDF media family are the most socially active in daily life and also attribute the highest integrative competence to ZDF. Moreover, entertainment offers are especially important to address target groups who are particularly critical of social cohesion and democracy. East Germans for example emphasize the integrative quality of ZDF's fictional content offers more than West Germans. If ZDF were to abandon its entertaining offers, it would lose especially the young audience and target groups critical towards integration.  Hence, ZDF would only insufficiently fulfil its integration mandate.

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