At first glance, it seems the executives at Switzerland’s German-language pubcaster SF DRS, weren’t feeling especially creative when they decided to name both of their primetime documentary slots `DOK.’ A closer look, however, reveals that creativity was the one thing they had on their minds. ‘The label `DOK’ enables us to do anything,’ explains Otto C. Honegger, head of docs at SF DRS. ‘If it’s a very good documentary, we find a way of showing it.’
A wealth of competition from German-language broadcasters across Europe including ARD, ZDF, Sat.1, and RTL, presents another good reason to keep the programming mandate at SF DRS flexible. Honegger estimates that 95% of households in Switzerland receive over 25 German channels, many of which label their doc strands subject-specific. Keeping their slots open is one way SF DRS distinguishes itself from the competition.
DOK is 52-minutes long and broadcasts Monday at 10:20 p.m. and Thursday at 8:00 p.m. While the Thursday DOK slot airs programs meant to reach a general audience, the Monday night slot is reserved for edgier subjects. ‘It might be sexy or specialized, such as political subjects or economics – things that don’t appeal to a family audience.’ says Honegger. The goal is to create a balance that appeals to a broad range of viewers.
SF DRS also works to vary its programming by mixing in-house productions with international acquisitions. Explains Honegger, ‘We have to make films that appeal to our public – that they think are good and will watch. With our own productions, we naturally focus on Swiss subjects. [Programming] would otherwise be too international, which comes with the acquisition of documentaries.’ SF DRS acquires at least 40 to 50 docs per year from independent producers and broadcasters such as the BBC. ‘We have a wide variety of subjects so we have to look at a wide variety of producers,’ says Honegger.
SF DRS usually buys only the Swiss-German rights for acquisitions, despite Switzerland being split into three language zones (French, Italian and German). The reason for this is to reduce costs. ‘Sometimes we buy rights to the whole of Switzerland, but then there should be a French and Italian version,’ explains Honegger. ‘It’s a language problem.’ Swiss-German rights cost US$74 per minute and Honegger estimates production costs for German versioning amounts to $5,000.
Acquisitions, dubbing included, are less costly than in-house productions, which start at US$75,000. Even so, sf drs has increased in-house activity, producing approximately 27 to 30 docs per year. This is partly because SF DRS productions normally bring in more viewers. Honegger attributes this to the fact that in-house productions tend to be more relevant to Swiss viewers, but he offers a solution: ‘We have found taking an example from Switzerland and adding it to a film sometimes adds to the acceptance of the film more than if it’s all shown in Germany, France or wherever the film was done,’ explains Honegger. ‘Unfortunately, there are not many films for which we can do that.’
In addition to the primetime DOK slots, SF DRS broadcasts docs that deal with high culture on Sunday mornings in the Sternstunde Kunst slot, and acquired docs of various subjects on Sunday afternoons in the Entdecken + Erleben slot. There are few slots for doc series, although a 7 x 45-minute series is acquired every summer to replace magazine programs on hiatus. The series broadcasts in July on Tuesday at 9:00 p.m.
SF DRS recently added a 25-minute docusoap slot Sunday at 8:00 p.m., but Honegger assures that ‘the docusoap genre is just a baby of our DOK strand’ and doesn’t indicate a warming to the genre.
It’s just another creative way to program docs.