Teutonic Shifts

The days of one-stop shopping for German producers is over. What once bordered on a civil-service system, one in which public broadcasters fully commissioned projects, is being broken up by the demands of a global marketplace. Granted, producers didn't get rich...
December 1, 1999

The days of one-stop shopping for German producers is over. What once bordered on a civil-service system, one in which public broadcasters fully commissioned projects, is being broken up by the demands of a global marketplace. Granted, producers didn’t get rich under the old system, but at least they never risked their own money and could focus on making films. Meanwhile, domestic broadcasters stockpiled a host of rights they didn’t use.

It has all changed. Ratings have become key even on German public television, and bigger budgets see broadcasters turning to outside sources to make up shortfalls. However, generations of German producers and broadcasters have grown up ignorant of the demands of foreign markets, and on the other side of the coin, the international community has remained largely unaware of German viewer demands.

Outside looking in

Channel surfing

As it is in many markets, the type of programming demanded by German broadcasters is divided along a public/private delineation. Some things, like history and wildlife, have legs in both spheres, but like anything else involving German broadcasters, it isn’t quite that simple. While it has grown elsewhere, the natural history market in Germany has shrunk. As Christine von Preyss, managing director of Munich-based True Stories observes, ‘Two or three years ago [German broadcasters] would buy wildlife from a one-sheet. But that has changed.’ Broadcasters might be responding to shrinking viewer numbers by cutting down on the amount they are purchasing, but the genre is far from dead.

‘The problem was that, over the past few years, every broadcaster had natural history,’ explains Sirkka Moeller, director of sales at Telcast International in Munich. ‘There was a flood, and of course, people got tired of it. Quite a lot of it was not high quality. It was B or C quality. What will survive is the blue-chip, high quality wildlife. The `not good’ stuff will disappear.’

German audiences show no signs of tiring of history, especially anything to do with World War II. Guido Knopp’s ZDF series Hitler’s Henchmen, is the example most German producers offer as the pattern to follow for those looking to sell to Germany.

After history and natural history, German broadcasters part ways. The commercial channels, as in the U.S., are not clamoring for factual. They do have an appetite for reality television – done in the German style. Some stations, such as Pro7, Kabel1, RTL, Sat1, focus their factual efforts on sensationalist reportage – the usual sex, crime and shockumentary fare – but for the most part, German audiences prefer less invasive programming, and because of that preference docusoaps are not pulling in the numbers they do elsewhere in Europe.

Elvira Lind, head of acquisition and sales at Spiegel TV in Hamburg, says her station has had success with reportage about daily life: road racing, people and animals, neighborhood fights and home construction, but she also picks science and technology as an up-and-comer. ‘Not boring educational docs,’ she qualifies. ‘I’m talking about really good, well-made, colorful, but at the same time quality science docs. Like those produced by NOVA, for example.’ Other broadcasters picked science as an entry point into the market, but warned that most channels only buy segments to cut into existing formats. The same can be said for many magazine shows. While infomags are mostly produced in-house, German broadcasters will buy segments.

Producers probably won’t get rich selling to German private stations though. Lind sees competition for programs among broadcasters falling off compared to three or four years ago, the result of a kind of unsaid agreement between buyers that they would not start bidding wars over licenses. ‘I know that if I try to get a film and I pay more money than [another station],’ she explains, ‘I am happy today. But tomorrow I have to pay the same license fee for another film. In the end, I have to pay more and more.’

While the private channels fill select slots with factual, German public television carries the lion’s share of the factual load. Generally less sensationalist, public television mirrors PBS in the U.S. for style and content in many ways. But the Byzantine structure of the American

pubcaster pales in comparison to its German counterpart. Essentially, there are three public broadcasters in Germany, two national and one regional. All have different buyers and compete for programming and funding. The regional pubcasters also require varying degrees of local content.

Thematically, on public television the most popular genres remain history, wildlife and investigative journalism, with occasional forays into `sophisticated’ travel and adventure. Science is also making a strong showing.

As has become the case in many markets, ratings have become a driving force on public television. ARD, for example, is planning to establish new doc slots in primetime next year, but they are only interested in entertaining docs that will pull in viewers.

An exception to the rule is ARTE (whose German shareholders include ARD and ZDF), which focuses on cultural docs and may, as one broadcaster put it, ‘out-PBS PBS’ for content and quality. ARTE also pioneered the concept of theme nights in the German market, an idea which has since been picked up by most broadcasters as a way of extending the value of their features. Turning a movie into an all-night event captures viewers earlier and keeps them. While most broadcasters don’t publicize their event schedules too far in advance to avoid competition, ARTE makes their list available to producers who might be interested in contributing or pitching ideas.

Foreign producers should also investigate Germany’s advertising and sponsorship rules for public television. No commercial breaks are allowed after 8pm, and before that commercials are limited to blocks a few minutes long between programs. Sponsorship is generally reserved for sports events and expensive wildlife, but a movement is afoot to do away with all forms of sponsorship completely, replacing the lost revenue with higher viewer fees.

The fine print

As a general rule, German broadcasters warn producers against talking heads, and prefer one-offs over series. Thirty minutes is not generally considered to be the ideal length for documentary in Germany, with most looking to 45-minute or longer docs. Features are a hard sell, as they are in most markets.

The 45-minute format seems odd to foreign producers, but it makes sense in Germany given that some of the highest rated programs in primetime remain the 15-minute news blocks in the 8pm slot. On most stations, therefore, primetime programming begins at 8:15. There have been some deviations, but German viewers consider the 8pm news shows the most credible.

Besides translating formats, content remains an issue for non-Germans broaching the market. ZDF VP of international programming, Effi Mueller, cautions producers against being culturally insular. While U.S. audiences understand the Civil War, she explains, and German audiences might know of the Amber Room, crossing borders means greater explanations. For some topics, Mueller states, ‘you have to educate your viewers before you can expand on [your] subject.’

The best way to find out what will work on German television is to go directly to the people who make the decisions. Jesus Gutierrez Vidal, sales manager at Athos Films Distribution in Berlin, recommends that producers ‘go directly to the commissioning editors. In fact, [in Germany] there is no exact split between buyers and commissioning editors. The `redakteur’ buys, coproduces and commissions.’ It’s almost one-stop shopping again – all you have to do is find them. Because of their historical disposition to isolation, German commissioning editors tend not to stray too far from home, prefering to keep to local film events.

As a final piece of advice for producers, True Stories’ Von Preyss says to start with what you know. ‘Never start an international project in Germany. Find a broadcaster in your home country first.’ After that, she recommends finding an experienced partner in Germany.

The common ground

Reich or wrong?

Most hold ZDF’s WWII effort as the prototypical German documentary for foreign markets. ‘Everybody is looking to Hitler’s Henchmen as the best example of how a documentary can work internationally,’ explains Von Preyss. ‘In Germany, there was a bit of a discussion about the style of the films because they used the propaganda of the Nazis. There are mixed feelings about it. But in the end, this was the example that showed how German products can be sold in the German and international markets when they have appeal – when they use drama.’

The series, a partnership between ZDF, ARTE, The History Channel in the U.S. and Australia’s SPS, showed it was possible for Germans to produce successfully for the domestic and foreign market through coproduction.

Historically, there has been resistance to international coproduction on the part of German producers. ‘They have this fear that if they have three or four different countries involved in producing their film, they won’t be able to maintain their ideas,’ observes Telcast’s Moeller. ‘Most of them are not prepared – and I hope this is changing – or they are not aware that they might have to adapt their film for a foreign market. They may have to do two or even more versions.’

On the other hand Spiegel TV’s Lind, says she seldomly coproduces with foreign broadcasters, mainly because of inefficiency. ‘The reason for that is that we produce very quickly. We don’t have enough manpower or time to meet ten times to discuss the agreement. We decide to produce a film, so we do it. Of course, some times we could make a better film if we had more money. But, at the same time, if you have to look for a coproducer for two years, you’ve spent money and you don’t have a film.’

Although it represents more investment, going abroad has also traditionally raised the specter of mediocrity, but projects like Hitler’s Henchmen have demonstrated that commercial doesn’t always equal substandard. ‘It doesn’t mean quality has to go down,’ says Von Preyss. ‘You have to think about how you can make a difficult topic or an important topic so attractive that even the people who watch docusoaps are interested in looking at it.’

Inside looking out

From Germany with love

If getting into Germany is hard, getting out is an even bigger challenge.

Says Lind of getting into the North American market: ‘It’s not difficult. It’s just impossible.’ And of possibilities in the U.K.: ‘Before they even screen your programs, they think: `Why can’t we do this ourselves?’ ‘

ZDF, the broadcaster who has perhaps made the most headway into the North American market, found that the best way to overcome the problem was to jump in with both feet. ‘A lot of [our success],’ explains Horst Mueller, senior vice president of North American operations for ZDF Enterprises, ‘has to do with the fact that ZDF decided very early on that it made sense to establish a local office in New York. It took a while to get to where we are now. At the beginning, it was more like an acquisitions office for American product. But, now the emphasis has really shifted towards selling our coproductions, especially in the non-fiction area.’

Mueller believes, beyond the contact and understanding he has attained by being immersed in the market, it is ZDF’s maturation that has helped the broadcaster break through. ‘When I think back about ten years ago, the documentaries ZDF had in Germany were simply not on the same level, and did not have the same production values now commonly expected by networks like Discovery or the History Channel. Now things have changed, and in recent years the documentaries ZDF have produced are on the same level budget-wise, and production values, and so on. They can really compete with the top international producers.’

Christine von Preyss’ advice to German producers is to ‘start to think a little more globally. But they don’t have to go to the States. They should start by thinking about their neighboring countries. It’s quite difficult and complicated to go to the States first. It’s a big market and it’s an unknown. Everybody should start with their next-door neighbors.’

Moeller sees this international awareness as a revolution in the German factual industry. ‘I think it has to change, because like everywhere else, budgets are getting smaller, and if broadcasters want to ensure that their programs have the quality that they want them to have, they better do something about it. I think there is a new generation coming. The people who are making the decisions are still of the generation before. I think something is moving. It just takes a while before it reaches the roots.’

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.