TV formats for young people
Public Television Fighting for the Young Audience

For young users, classical television programming is becoming less and less important; especially the public television channels ARD and ZDF find it difficult to reach them. Yet on their digital channels, far from quota pressure and format models, the most exciting talents in German television are flourishing.

“Who still watches TV?” “Who still watches TV?” | © stockphoto-graf - At first glance, German television providers have little reason to worry: in 2013 viewers in the Federal Republic watched an average of 219 minutes of television per day, about half an hour more than ten years ago. But only two public service programmes have an audience whose average age lies under sixty: the Children’s Channel (25 years of age) and Phoenix (57 years of age) In 2008, the Conference of the Chairpersons of Broadcasting Councils (GVK) already criticized public broadcasting for having almost completely lost the young as a target group.

Pro Sieben and RTL by far the most popular broadcasters

Despite smartphones and tablets, television still plays a pre-eminent role in the lives of young people. According to the 2013 JIM (Young People, Information and Multimedia) Study of the Media Research Association South-West, 88 per cent of 12 to 19 year-olds use television and its contents several times a week. Television use is thus at the same level as that of the internet (89 per cent).In a representative survey, however, about half of the 12 to 19 year-olds named Pro Sieben as their favourite broadcaster. It was followed by two other private channels, RTL and RTL2. Their casting shows (Germany’s Next Topmodel) and docu-soaps (Berlin Tag und Nacht [i.e., Berlin Day and Night]) now easily outstrip the classical entertainment formats of public service broadcasters such as Wetten, dass..? (i.e., Wanna Bet That ..?) and Verbotene Liebe (i.e., Forbidden Love). Only two per cent of young people named a public channel as their favourite.

Innovative and fresh – but with hardly any viewers

To accuse the public broadcasters of waging all too lax a battle for younger viewers seems obvious, but is wrong. It is exactly on their young digital channels, ZDFneo, ZDFkultur and Einsplus, that some of the most innovative German formats of recent years have been launched. In 2012 the programme of Einsplus was reorganized; since then, it has been primarily aimed at a younger audience. On Ausflug mit Kuttner (i.e., Outing with Kuttner), the ex-Viva presenter Sarah Kuttner interviews celebrities at places of their childhood, the general reportage programme Klub Konkret (i.e., Club Concrete) takes up political issues and Philipp Walulis (born 1980), in his show Walulis sieht fern (i.e., Walulis Watches TV), parodies with cleverness and precision TV genres like the crime series Tatort (i.e., Crime Scene).

Critics highly praise all these shows, but they are broadcast almost to the exclusion of the public. ZDF is the most successful of the public services with its digital special-interest channels ZDFinfo and ZDFneo. Yet in 2013 ZDFneo had an average market share of only 1.0 per cent. Looked at conversely, however, this broadcasting “under he radar” is a great opportunity: free of heavy pressure to succeed, new talents can use well-funded public television to experiment, no matter how marginal this may seem at first glance.

On ZDFkultur Charlotte Roche and Jan Böhmermann reinvigorated the stale talk show format with their programme Roche & Böhmermann. They smoked and drank and introduced their guests with outrageously cheeky recorded videos. Böhmermann (born in 1981) now has his own show on ZDFneo. In the opening sequence he rides in on a three-horned dinosaur, and during the show he sits enthroned before a kind of Starship Enterprise backdrop, looking like a crazed movie villain. “If you want to do controversial, exciting and unusual shows, hierarchies, old show concepts and the best market research don’t cut the mustard if courage is lacking”, said Böhmermann in an interview with the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

Niches, yes; main programme, rather not

For all their willingness to experiment in the special interest channels, the public broadcasters lack this courage, charge the young television professionals, especially with respect to their main programme. What use is all the praise, they ask, when those in charge at ARD and ZDF do not think them capable of performing on the big stage? Klaas Heufer-Umlauf and Joko Winterscheidt succeeded in making the breakthrough with their anarchic late-night show Neo paradise on ZDFneo; in the meantime they are even being discussed as moderators for Wetten, dass..? When ZDF initially held out no prospect of a slot in the main programme to Heufer-Umlauf and Winterscheidt, they switched to Pro Sieben.

The success story of the award-winning Heute-Show (i.e., today show) shows that it can be worth venturing something in the main programme in the fight for young viewers: the satire programme is now established on ZDF in a slot on Friday evening with an average of 2.67 million viewers – and an above average market share especially in the target group of 14 to 49 year-olds. This may be seen in the fact that some episodes of the Heute-Show Thomas Bellut, more than 500,000 mediathek hits on the Net.

There has also been repeated talk of a joint ARD and ZDF youth channel: it would be funded with 45 million euros per year and would replace ZDFkultur, Einsplus and Einsfestival. The English television broadcaster BBC spends twice as much on its young people’s programme. So far ARD and ZDF have been unable to reach agreement; the plan is on hold. And TV talents such as Böhmermann, who could benefit from the joint channel in the form of time slots, are not even necessarily in favour of it. The main counter-argument: with a separate young people’s channel, the public broadcasters would have one excuse more for not having to include them in their main programmes.