By Dom Serafini
Being Italian, I’m accustomed to the Italian social-political Machiavellian-Byzantine way of life. However, during a recent visit to Germany, I was not prepared for the intricacies of the country’s television industry. It’s not that it is secretive or mysterious.
It’s just complex.
Even though television in Germany follows the capitalistic maxim “business is business,” underneath it all, the politically-charged public TV sector controls every aspect of the business: both public and indirectly, private. With 36.5 million TV households, Germany is Europe’s largest TV market.
The key players in the German TV game are ARD, ZDF and, to a lesser extent but still influential, Deutsche Welle (DW). Combined, these entities directly control 40 percent of the German TV market and dominate film-TV production and international program sales.
ARD, also called Das Erste, or The First Channel, is a consortium of the country’s 10 broadcasting organizations (representing the country’s 16 states, or Länder), each financed by limited advertising and license fees. ARD also operates the Third TV Channel (ARD Dritte).
The ARD model is so successful that it is said to have been the model for U.K.’s Freeview platform ZDF, or the Second German Television Channel, is controlled by the federal government and funded by TV license fees. DW is an independent public agency for overseas radio-TV services (it broadcasts worldwide radio programs in 30 languages and TV shows in 4 languages). It is part of the ARD consortium, but funded directly by the federal government.
The license fee of 208 euro per year per household ($283), generating some 7.6 billion euro annually, is now split evenly between ARD and ZDF. Advertising brings them an additional 500 million euro per year (out of a total radio-TV ad market of 4.2 billion euro). The system is so good, that to the naked eye it may resemble a pure private enterprise that can only exist due to German common sense, fairness and respect for others.
Jointly, ARD and ZDF own Ki.Ka (children’s channel), ARTE, Phoenix (news service), Sporta (sports coverage) and, in partnership with Switzerland’s state TV organizations SGR and SSR, 3Sat (the cultural satellite channel).
For its part, ARD spearheaded German film-TV production. For example, Studio Hamburg is owned by ARD state member station NDR (northern state). Similarly, the Bavaria Film Group is owned by ARD member stations WDR (western states), BR (Bavaria), SWR (southwest region) and MDR (central states), as well as ZDF. Munich-based Bavaria Film and Hamburg-based Studio Hamburg are tied as Germany’s second largest production and distribution entities. The country’s number one production company is privately-held RTL’s Fremantle Grundy UFA.
MDR, SWR and BR are also shareholders of Munich-based Telepool, a production and distribution company formed with the other ARD members such as SR (Saarland region) and Switzerland’s SGR and SSR. In addition to distributing programs from independent producers, Telepool has handled RTL’s library and all new RTL productions since 2007.
But the web of interconnected companies gets even more complex with United Docs, a Cologne-based company specializing in documentaries set up by ARD’s member stations NDR, SWR, WDR and HR (Hessian region) and Radio Bremen.
Furthermore, in 1997, ARD’s members WDR and NDR (and SWR in 2009) formed Cologne-based German United Distribution (GUD) as an umbrella marketing organization for three independently-run companies: Bavaria Film Group’s Bavaria Media, Studio Hamburg and United Docs. The latter company also handles GUD’s nature and wildlife programs.
Finally, GUD represents the program catalog of ARD member stations HR and Radio Bremen and organizes the annual German Screenings with its partners, DW and Austria’s TV state organization, ORF.
To put all this in perspective, it is sufficient to say that in Germany, domestic film-and TV production alone represents an annual investment of more than two billion euro for an output of about 70 film and 1,700 hours of drama.
Please understand it just took me weeks, not to mention two trips to Germany, to put together all of the above, so don’t be surprised if it takes you a few ponderous minutes to understand it. The point to remember is that it is not the complex web, but rather how in Germany maintaining good relationships with one group, extends good will to others. This strong and expanding public and intertwined TV sector also represents a shield against foreign incursion into the territory.