Talking history and the future with ZDF

Realscreen spoke with ZDF's head of history and society Alexander Hesse about the future of ZDF and how German audiences like shipwrecks and earthy themes with their factual.
October 8, 2008

How have German audiences tastes for factual programs changed over the past couple of years?

I only speak for my department, but thanks to our colleagues from marketing and a very helpful device called ‘public appreciation panel’ (PAP), we do know that our audience likes instructional but entertaining documentaries dealing with our planet, whether it is nature, wildlife or the forces of nature. Other all time sellers are documentaries about leading historical characters, shipwrecks or the rise and fall of empires. Of course people have special interests in topics, which are up-to-date, but our evergreens are also still en vogue. It’s not that much a question of content but of style. For example, re-enactments versus pure documentary, presenters in the program, are popular.

What types of factual programs are the most successful right now for ZDF?

Right now the BBC coproduction Power of the Planet, with presentations by the German astronaut Thomas Reiter, which we edited in our version, is a very successful five part-documentary.

What changes do you foresee for ZDF in the coming year?

Since the TV business is in a continuous flow, there is always the challenge to keep up the pace with the progress of the art, technology and so on. The future is always demanding and since our production periods are sometimes quite long – due to the subjects and the finishing of our documentaries – we have to plan quite some time in advance. We are constantly working on our programs. For example we just recently relaunched our history slot formerly known as ZDF-Expedition. There are so many new programs in the field of factual entertainment on various channels that we did not want to strain our audience any longer with too many different brand names under our umbrella brand. So we abdicated ZDF-Expedition in favor of our evergreen ‘Terra X’.
ZDF in general is moving steadily into the new digital world. This applies to our digital channels as well as to our internet performance.

What advice would you give to producers wanting to work with ZDF?

For prime time documentaries it is important to work together with the best production companies you can get. Of course, we do have a network. But nevertheless, we are always ready to induce ‘fresh blood’ in our system as long as the story is enthralling, up to date and – goes without saying – the realization is fitting to our slot. We are constantly looking for new ideas to tell the old history in a modern way.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.