Can anything save German television? UPDATE

Every now and then comes up a discussion in Germany that covers the low quality of its television channels and their content. And in the end it leads to the question: can anything save German television?

Well this discussion isn’t new, and German television has indeed developed and „acquired“ some formats, that are about to destroy the most important foundation of „private television“: advertising and commercials (no money – no private television).

Television is no gift to the audience – it is some sort of a vehicle to provide a frame for commercials. A good frame. Because no one likes to watch a channel, that is transmitting one commercial after the other, except the home-shopping channels. German (private) channels have only one thing in mind: get the most money out with as little effort. This led to reality formats like „Big Brother“, „Deutschland sucht den Superstar“ and other shows and their derivatives, that drew a big audience in the beginning and are loosing more and more ground through the years (in fact, those channels are beginning to ride a dead horse). When most reality formats are dead – so is advertising. The remainig audience – and this sounds harsh – are people who aren’t the creme de la creme of consumers.

German television is dead

Think about it: when only people with low budgets are watching a show, are they the target-audience for, say, a Mercedes, BMW automobiles or SmartPhones? Sure, they’re interested in the cars, but they never have the money to buy one. Which leads to a second problem: when the target audience is so low-level budgeted, the commercials will be following the trend. And in the end, you get a television program that is so bad, that you can bear only with at least 3 Whiskeys inside.

Or you quit watching „live“ tv and do, what millions of people are doing: you design your own tv program. Enter DVD, BluRay, video-on-demand. And: enter a new generation of high-end tv entertainment synonymous to three letters: HBO.

HBO as the white knight

HBO and its marvellous series are the prototype for new television – and for quality television. Think just of those 6 series:

Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, Rome! The interesting side is, that these series are liked through all social classes (apparently German tv managers seem to misjudge their audience).

But HBO led to a bunch of more quality-driven tv series like Mad Men (AMC), Homeland (FOX21), Battlestar Galactica (SyFy), Breaking Bad (SONY Pictures Entertainment), Death in Paradise (BBC), Doctor Who (BBC) and many more. Suddenly, it seemed, the executives at the media were heading for quality.

Well not quite – but those series show very intensely, why German tv has bid the big one.

OK. What do we have in Germany, besides the German translations of the aforementioned productions? Now it’s getting really difficult. The German ambitious tv watcher has to choose between TATORT, TRAUMSCHIFF and stuff like that. All in all series for an audience, that has passed the age of 50 long ago. For the „youngsters“ tv isn’t that important. They just consume tv as the old ones were watching radio. En passant. And if they want to watch something special, they pirate via internet (Game of Thrones anyone?) or buy whole seasons of their most beloved series on DVD or BluRay. So German classic tv is dying for this group. And it’s dying fast. And with the death of an important part of the audience the advertising industry will be looking for other platforms to find its consumer targets.

Before we take a look at the opportunities in German tv we got to ask: where are the „German“ HBO-grade series? There aren’t any, because a generation of young, cynical tv makers just have one thing in mind: make lots of money with a fraction of investment. This idea was excellent in the beginning – remember the reality shows? But now everything tilts. The well-funded audience has left the shows of Pro7, RTL and the others. They hate German tv. And the discussion about the „quality“ of German television gets louder and louder.

Can anything save German television?

To answer this question, we’ll have to look into pure German stories. It seems, that there aren’t any. Yes, in the past, there were series, that had quite an impact and were pure German („Rote Erde„) or sometimes pure „Bavarian“. Münchner G’schichten (Stories of Munich) in the 70s, „Irgendwie und sowieso“ in the 80s and some others and that’s about it. The whole Germany seems to have no typical stories to tell, that leave behind some sort of provincial touch. Everything must be suitable for an international market, because otherwise, there is not enough money to PRODUCE those series. But is this the only obstacle? Think of Danish/Swedish series like „Kommissarin Lund“ (US: The Killing) , „Nordlicht – Mörder ohne Reue“ etc. – why do they achieve something, a TATORT seldom does (with exceptions …)? And is Denmark or Sweden a so bigger tv market, than Germany?

Think of some German peculiarities and phenomenons:

Science Fiction: Perry Rhodan (and ATLAN) – the mother of all space operas. This could be even an international hit like STARGATE.

History: the whole Middle Ages has stories and tales that could fill thousands of hours of film (yes, there is the „Third Reich“ and „Nazis“, but we’re talking about entertainment and not „education“). Think about Charlemagne, Barbarossa, Friedrich der Große etc. – there could be so many ENTERTAINING not EDUCATING series.

Thrillers: Andeas Eschbach’s Books and Frank Schätzing’s works, just to name a few.

Newcomers: Rainer Wolf (The Aurora Effect), Martina André (Das Rätsel der Templer), Marc Elsberg (BLACKOUT – which would be a hell of a series …), Uwe Schomburg (Die Sirius Verschwörung),

There have been productions in private tv channels (Eschbach, Schätzing), but they all were mediocre productions (and no series!), with the same cynical underestimation of the audience by the tv managers. In fact: it would be impossible in the German tv landscape to develop a series, that could play with the big dogs on the international markets, including Canada.

So the advertising industry keeps counting on foreign productions. What a pity. And our answer to the question is quite clear: apparently no one can save German television.


Note: We didn’t cover the „Öffentlich rechtliche Fernsehen (ARD & ZDF)“ because those guys also just try to ride the dead horse of the private channels. They have failed miserably in the last 10 years despite their tremendous budgets. Their budgets are in fact BIG ENOUGH to surpass HBO and friends. But the money is burnt in administration, buildings, nepotism and other things that have nothing to do with tv.

Update, December 2015: When „Deutschland ’83“ was broadcasted in Germany, the audience reacted not as expected. The „commentariat“ in the feuilletons dumped it. For me, that was strange. For the first time, the Germans did it. They produced a tv series that mattered and could have run with the big dogs in the States and Canada. So I take my own article with a grain auf salt now. Maybe – MAYBE, German television is so bad BECAUSE of the audience. An audience that WANTS TO SEE unintelligent destraction from its every day life. Then my friends there is indeed no way, that German television will some time catch up with the big dogs. There might be simply no audience for it. Pity.

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