The discussion about the legal mandate of public service broadcasters takes place both at the national and the European level. By now, broadcasting is classified almost without controversy as a service in terms of European primary legislation. This brings up the question of whether the financing of public service broadcasters through mandatory user fees and the goal of free competition are compatible. As this question is primarily framed from an economic perspective and therefore differs from a view that instead emphasises the constitutional goal of free speech, conflicts are inevitable. Legally, the question is whether the broadcasting fee qualifies as a so-called "state-aid" in terms of the EC treaty and - if this is the case - to what extent exceptions apply to the activities of public service broadcasters so that under certain conditions state aid may be compatible with the common market.
For some time Germany, among other member states, has interpreted the treaty differently than the European Commission with regards to the classification of their funding systems. In a letter from early 2005, the Directorate-General Competition suggested that, in its opinion, there needed to be a more detailed definition of what exactly is comprised by the mandate of public service broadcasters in certain areas and therefore open to financing by broadcasting fees. These areas include, for instance, online activities and the digital television services. In the case of the commercial activities of public service broadcasters and of their relations to subsidiary companies, the Commission criticises a lack of transparency.