ZDF.Kultur Digital Channel Aims to Combine Features and Pop Culture

ZDF.Kultur: traditional features and modern pop culture.
ZDF.Kultur: traditional features and modern pop culture. | Photo (detail): Bettina Kasten © ZDF

Mit dem Aufkommen des Digitalfernsehens experimentieren auch öffentlich-rechtliche Anstalten mit Spartensendern. ZDF.Kultur etwa will durch neue Sendeformate und interaktive Elemente Feuilleton mit Popkultur verbinden.

The German television scene consists of private channels financed mainly by advertising and sponsors, and public service broadcasters supported bylicence fees and advertising. Since technology has paved the way for digital television, the public service broadcasters, i.e. ARD (the German consortium of public-law broadcasting institutions) and ZDF (Germany’s national public television broadcaster), have set up new digital special-interest channels focusing on a variety of different themes. They argue that in a digital age, that is the only way to fulfil their public service obligation of reaching all their target groups.

Relaunch leads to new self-image

The ZDFtheaterkanal, which was launched in 1999, reports mainly on classical theatre and the performing arts. But those responsible wanted more than that. Changing the channel’s name to ZDF.Kultur in spring 2011 reflected that their programming was based on what they believed was a modern attitude to life and a new understanding of culture. The Internet and different everyday realities play an outstanding role in promoting culture today. Thus, the aim is to abolish both the outdated separation of highbrow culture and pop culture and the separation of TV and the Internet. The focus is on playful experimentation rather than educational features. Culture is regarded as including not only theatre, but also computer games. Subjectivity and interaction are allowed, the aim being for the audience to have fun getting involved in showcasing culture themselves.

Highbrow and pop culture, alternative music and interactive experiments

Moderator of the show “Delikatessen”: Rainer Maria Jilg Photo: Klaus Weddig © ZDFTraditional forms of highbrow culture remain on the programme, for example spoken theatre and dance, classical music, opera, jazz and a literary and a philosophical quartet. Cabaret, comedy and popular old television series are also screened. However, since the relaunch, greater emphasis has been placed on pop music, mainly on musical genres that are little in the limelight, such as indie, heavy metal, hip hop, jazz and electronic music. Some fans go so far as to see this as a renaissance of music television, hitherto neglected in Germany. ZDF.Kultur broadcasts various music festivals live (Hurricane, Glastonbury, Roskilde, splash!, Melt, Wacken and the Berlin Festival), shows the legendary BBC pop show Later with Jools Holland and also produces its own concert series in Berlin and Dessau. It also has innovative programme formats. TV Noir, for example, already had an online fan base because the programme had previously been shown on Youtube. It is a music talk show broadcast in black and white in which a newcomer makes music together with an established musician in a living room in the Berlin district of Neukölln.

In On Tape, a cooperation with the music video internet channel tape.tv, viewers can use video chat to interact with the programme in real time and give the musicians direct feedback. The programme Marker is designed to be a particularly important element in the channel’s programme and one that helps to define its image. It is shown each day at 8.00 p.m. and deals with socially relevant themes relating to everyday and popular culture. The presenters many not be “cooler“ than on MTV, but they are better trained. A distinctive feature of the programme’s format is its consciously subjective and cross-media approach. The network is intended to be both a channel for disseminating culture and a source of culture.

Audience ratings and prospects

At first, there was criticism that ZDF was spending several million euro of public money on a channel that initially had extremely low, almost immeasurably low ratings, according to the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Fernsehforschung (television research working group). The first positive feedback from viewers of ZDF.Kultur, half of whom are younger than 50, counters this view. The channel’s website recently recorded some 1.5 million pageviews and meanwhile has nearly 17,000 friends on Facebook. Some recordings of festivals have even made it into the top ratings of the public service broadcaster’s general media library. ZDF.Kultur is broadcast in Germany on the Cable TV Network (DVB-C) and Europe-wide via the Astra 1H satellite (DVB-S). For legal reasons, the channel’s website only shows a few streams, but ZDF.Kultur online is available around the clock using the program Zattoo, which is free of charge. The end of analogue satellite broadcasting in May 2012 is likely to boost digital channels, predict German TV Platform experts at the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA) in Berlin.

Klaus Beck:
Das Mediensystem Deutschlands: Strukturen, Märkte, Regulierung (VS Verlag, 2012)

Hermann Meyn:
Massenmedien in Deutschland (UvK, 2004)

Wolfram Schrag:
Medienlandschaft Deutschland (UvK, 2007)