Watching TV in Germany Reliability and ratings

The German TV scene: series and soaps or political and cultural programs?
The German TV scene: series and soaps or political and cultural programs? | Photo: Tomislav Pinter © iStockphoto

The better their education, the less TV people watch. At least that is what the latest research indicates. And if they do spend time in front of the tube, it is to watch public broadcasting stations like ARD and ZDF, or cultural programming from the likes of 3sat and Arte.

Compared with the private stations, which primarily broadcast comedy and drama series, soaps, docu-soaps and casting shows, public broadcasters like ARD (including its six state-run operations) and ZDF have achieved a certain level of reliability with regard to programming structure and variety. And although romantic mini-series and chewing-gum-for-the-brain soap operas are natural parts of everyday life on television, the news, political and cultural programs still have their place in the overall mix.

Public broadcasters: modest but reliable

It all has a slightly subdued tone and doesn't radiate the utmost in creativity, but the ever-recognizable faces and the comfortable, familial environment that these stations provide also has something soothing about it: Tatort, a Sunday crime-drama hit since the 1970s; Sportschau, the country's leading sports highlights program; Tageschau, a news program every evening at 8:00 p.m.; Tagesthemen, another daily news program at 10:15 p.m.; cultural journals such as ttt – Titel, Thesen Temperamente or aspekte; and political programs like Report or Panorama. All of this has long been part of the everyday television landscape for Germans. If something explosive happens, you can watch Brennpunkt (lit. hot spot) after Tageschau, a show with detailed and reliable coverage of breaking news. And therein lies the draw. The German TV viewing public feels at home with these programs. They have known the people who live on Lindenstrasse since they were kids and the hosts of Sportschau are often there for decades. If a star like Thomas Gottschalk quits his post on a Saturday night show like Wetten dass..? the entire nation, whether in the laundromat or in the daily newspaper, discusses his showbiz future and what should happen next.

If you look at research on the subject, public TV stations attract an audience of above 40 or 50 years of age. The most reasonable explanation for the relaxed attitude toward programming, however, is that they have been funded primarily by taxpayer money since the very beginning: ARD began broadcasting after its predecessor NWDR in 1950, and ZDF began its programming in 1963. Advertising revenues complement the governmental support.

Private stations: ratings as a benchmark

The situation is completely different when looking at the private stations, which were only authorized to set up operations in the early 1980s. These entities finance themselves from advertising revenues. As such, they pull out all the stops to attract the prized under-50 target group. Unlike at public television stations, which are controlled by broadcasting commissions in order to guarantee the plurality of programming for the relevant social groups, the private stations rely on ratings to structure their offering.

Many stations choose to broadcast a never-ending rotation of American shows and soap operas. In other stations, celebrities past their prime end up in jungle camps and are put to merciless tests of endurance. Shopping queens are crowned if they can manage under immense time pressure to purchase the winning outfit for the chosen theme. People are sent abroad without any knowledge of the local language and are observed as they try to box their way through a visit to a tanning salon in Mallorca or order a sausage with potato salad at an Italian snack truck. Casting shows have become increasingly popular in their search for superstars, supermodels and super talents of all kinds. Courtroom shows select lawyers and district attorneys who then get their own shows. The docu-soaps constantly show family dramas while wildly popular celebrity journals deal with the hottest gossip.

Relaxation for everyone

It is no wonder, then, that a good number of folks flip back to the more familiar public television channels – and not just those viewers with a higher level of education. If you are looking for serious news, that is where you go anyway, and everyone at some point or another wants to watch a classic crime thriller or a top-notch feature film without the constant commercial interruptions of a private station. Of course, these traditional broadcasters can't live completely without advertising, but the commercials come in blocks before prime-time programming begins. At 8:00 p.m. it is over and that is something you can still rely on.

Since the 1980s, ARD and ZDF have been broadcasting German-language programming in collaboration with Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF) and Schweizer Fernsehen (SF) on 3sat. At the beginning of the 1990s, Arte came on the scene with a German-French cultural offering. Then came Phönix, an event and documentary channel, and Kika, a commercial-free channel for children. The private stations have more or less merged to form two giant conerns: ProSiebenSat1Media and the RTL Group. In addition to their mostly entertainment-oriented programming, the private stations also operate news channels N24 (ProSieben) and n-tv (RTL Group). Germany also has a range of special interest channels such as Eurosport or Viva, along with a few local stations. The market leader in sports is pay-TV broadcaster SKY.