ZDFneo: New spur for German public TV

Nationwide German public broadcaster ZDF recently announced the relaunch of one of its digital channels. The new offering, to be on air from November 2009, is called ZDFneo, thus epitomising the channel’s intention. And there is a lot about ZDF that needs to be updated indeed.

While standing in high esteem throughout German society, ZDF (as well as its sibling network ARD) has nonetheless many issues. One of the most threatening is that more than three quarters of the main channel’s audience is above 50 years of age. Basically, and despite scattered efforts to come up with programmes appealing to younger target groups, the channel has aged with its viewers.

Therefore, its audience will literally become extinct, which in turn means that at one point in the quite foreseeable future ZDF will run into trouble justifying its share of the mandatory licence fee the Germans are paying. Both ARD and ZDF have essentially obliterated themselves from the relevant set of the younger generations, i.e., from the group of channels most likely to be watched.

ZDF’s main channel is almost beyond remedy. Despite many individual causes for criticism, this is not a result of incompetence on the part of ZDF’s management or of badly produced programmes. Rather, it is a complex structural problem, not the least of which is that the German political sphere has public broadcasting in a stranglehold. Currently, this is exemplified in a seemingly endless partisan row over the appointment of a new ZDF chief editor. Fierce competition for coveted time slots or proportions of programme contents is frequently motivated by all the wrong reasons, including departmental or political power struggles.

The remit of pubcasters requires them to provide blanket coverage of all kinds of formats, genres, and societal groups within their main programmes, resulting in a chequer-board schedule that renders any audience flow unattainable by default. Viewers of a news magazine will be put off by a drama series coming up next, and the other way around. Therefore ZDF and ARD are barely able to attract or keep a stable viewership.

It is for this reason that the public broadcasters have diversified since the 1980s. Besides their main channels, they started mono-thematic and target group oriented supplementary channels, such as for children’s programming, news, or cultural topics. But apart from the children’s channel (which has commercial competition), they all remained in niches not served by private broadcasters and did little to grow the total audience of ARD and ZDF. If anything, they shifted attention away from the main channels.

It appears that this might change soon. The information that has so far been released about ZDFneo is intriguing, because it proves that up-to-date know-how is there, but has failed ostensibly to find an appropriate outlet until now. Of the many interesting and inspired programming decisions, a few stick out as sensational: The channel will strip Seinfeld in the afternoon (i.e., have it on daily at the same time), and will air the German free-TV premieres of 30 Rock and In Plain Sight during primetime.

From the outside, the idea of playing US series might not seem very exceptional. But it must be seen within context. US drama and comedy series are, of course, a cornerstone of television everywhere, and Germany is no exception. However, they have primarily been a domain of commercial channels, and they were not always treated seriously, especially if they were quirky, intellectual or otherwise difficult for the mainstream public. Many of the most critically acclaimed US series either never found their way onto German television screens or were hidden away at the fringes of the schedule.

Public television treated US series no better. ZDF for instance failed to grasp the potential of The Sopranos, broadcasting the series into utter oblivion during the wee hours of the night. Only the Internet and DVD editions mercifully introduced the German public to Tony and his gang.

Finally, the makers of ZDFneo got it and acted on their insights: contemporary US comedy and drama series are a key to reaching younger and middle-aged audiences, and by selecting the ones that – dare I say it? – have an artistic value or special pop culture status, public broadcasters can assert their sophisticated aspirations and at the same time attract young and up-market viewers. This holds even more true when the respective programmes are scheduled dependably in an appropriate time slot, and a pubcaster need not worry if a few slots under-perform in terms of audience ratings.

Overall, the announcements give the impression of a well-balanced mix of public value with clear insights derived from observing commercial competitors. The channel will have the usual docu-soaps and reality formats, but probably with a less demeaning attitude towards their protagonists. It shrewdly uses production companies with strong backgrounds in private TV while introducing new British shows, including Spooks and Taking the Flak, to the German audience.

There is yet another interesting aspect to ZDFneo. The channel will be available free of charge on digital terrestrial television (DTT) everywhere in Germany and can be received with minimal technical effort, even indoors and mobile. This is important because it will constitute the first innovative offer on DTT which also addresses a larger and younger-skewing target group. Thus it might actually help to finally make the ailing – not to mention costly – German DTT system more attractive. Regrettably, the lack of available bandwidth forces ZDFneo to share air space with the public children’s channel and it will only be on from 9 p.m. daily, thus obliterating most of its potential effect.

The commercial stations, who had gotten comfortable with public TV boring its ageing audience to death, reacted with a predictable outcry, berating ZDF for its foray into their territory. Most probably, however, ZDFneo will not have a major direct impact on the television market as a whole. But hopefully it will revitalise competition for quality rather than quantity. And, if watching it turns out to be actually fun, ZDFneo might even become the nucleus of a second wind for public broadcasting.