German Series Early Evening Chimeras

“Verbotene Liebe” logo

For twenty years daily soaps have been part of the German television programme. Now traditional formats are being dropped, quotas are sinking and the younger audience drifting away to the internet. Is the format still relevant? An interview with the TV scholar Lothar Mikos.

Mr Mikos, recently ARD announced it is dropping its daily soap “Verbotene Liebe” (ie. Forbidden Love) from the programme after nearly twenty years. Three years ago the axe fell on the series “Marienhof”, an ARD soap with a tradition of eighteen years in the early evening programme. Is the soap format a dinosaur in German television?

No, you can’t say that. There are still soaps that are very successful. That a broadcaster now and then says good-bye to a series can have many causes. For example, that the actors have become too expensive. Or simply that the story has told itself out. In the case of the dropped series Verbotene Liebe and Marienhof, I see still another trend. It’s no secret that ARD has been having huge problems with its early evening programme for years. It’s been trying to counteract this for some time – for instance, with various crime formats. But the viewing figures continue to sink.

Why is that?

It’s just that people’s lives have changed. The TV format of the soap established itself at a time, namely the 1940s, when you could assume that the average family regularly gathered together for dinner at six o’clock and afterwards sat in front of the box – that is, when daddy came home from his nine-to-five job. These days are now of course long gone. The younger generation in particular often feels fixed transmission times to be an imposition. Series today are more and more viewed online at the media libraries of the broadcasters. To me, it sometimes seems as if in its early evening time slots ARD is running after a chimera.

Trend towards scripted reality

What do you think of the thesis that the soap format isn’t up-to-date and is being gradually supplanted by other concepts, such as the so-called scripted reality shows?

Lothar Mikos, Professor of Television Studies Lothar Mikos, Professor of Television Studies | © Karolin Krämer As I said, there are still very successful soaps. Of course it’s true that scripted reality concepts such as Berlin – Tag & Nacht (ie. Berlin – Day and Night) or its Cologne spin-off Köln 50667 (ie. Cologne 50667) are also very successful. But here it’s a matter of an independent format that has simply developed parallel to the soap formats. You can’t really talk of a replacement – rather of a differentiation of the market.

It’s often said the appeal of scripted reality formats lies in the high degree of authenticity of their actors. It’s said that the Berlin film production Filmpool, makers of “Berlin – Tag & Nacht”, among other series, make a point of using lay actors, who don’t really act but rather only improvise themselves.

I would say that the actors in shows like Berlin – Tag & Nacht are lay actors only in quotation marks. When someone constantly acts in a show for over a year, then I find it difficult to speak of a layman. It’s much more natural then to call him an untrained actor. But the aspect of authenticity in the mix here isn’t really the decisive thing in my view.

Extension in the social media

But rather?

Successful scripted reality formats in German television work above all thanks to their extension into the social media. Berlin – Tag & Nacht has over three million fans at Facebook. And all its characters are active there. This of course makes possible a very precise access to the target group for the production company and a correspondingly rapid response to emerging trends.

Why is it that the quotas of successful German formats are comparatively so low in international comparison?

Although this may sound surprising, seen purely statistically, Germany is a relatively TV-hostile country. Take the current quotas for the daily soap Gute Zeiten Schlechte Zeiten (ie. Good Times, Bad Times), which are still looked upon as very good. We have here to do with a market share of about twelve per cent, about three million people. Aggregated over one hundred per cent, this comes to about 25 million people, and that with a population of over 80 million.

German TV is provincial

This is of course different in countries like Brazil, of which it is said that almost every household has the telly running constantly.

I find the comparison with countries such as Sweden more interesting. There we have to do with nine million inhabitants. When Donald Duck and His Friends is broadcast on Christmas Day, seven million Swedes are actually sitting in front of their TVs. That’s a market share of almost eighty per cent.

For several years now there’s been a discussion about the quality of German series. Again and again people raise the question about what American broadcasters like HBO, which are praised for their high quality programmes, are doing better.

Of course it’s always rather difficult to compare the German and the American TV markets. As for HBO, it’s a pay channel that became big by broadcasting exclusive sports coverage, has a quite considerable subscriber base of around 30 million viewers in the USA and also enjoys certain freedoms such as those regarding the protection of minors. On the other hand, we should see that the such highly acclaimed HBO series as Game of Thrones play only a very marginal role on the American market and pay for themselves mainly by overseas sales. And here again you can very well draw a line to Germany.

In what way?

Here, in the midst of the largest television market in Europe, we have to do with a situation that can be described only as a smug grazing in our own pasture. The international exploitation of series still doesn’t play the role that it could be playing. From this point of view, it has to said that German television is relatively provincial.
Lothar Mikos is Professor of Television Studies at the Konrad Wolf Film University in Babelsberg and has been working for more than twenty-five years on the development of international television. As Director of the Erich Pommer Institute, he launched the European TV Drama Series Lab in 2012, and as Chair of the Television Studies Section of the European Research and Education Association (ECREA) heads a network of more than one hundred television studies scholars in Europe.