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High Quality or High Viewing Figures?

Im Angesicht des Verbrechens
Im Angesicht des Verbrechens | Photo (detail): © ARD/Julia von Vietinghoff

Sophisticated TV series these days are considered to be one of the most interesting narrative formats. American productions lead the field, but in the meantime quite a lot of European TV stations are investing in the genre. Up to now Germany has had a hard time keeping up with it, but things are about to change.

By Klaus Lüber

Television is reinventing itself – just not in Germany. In a nutshell, this is the way the debate that has been going on in Germany for years among the country’s viewers, TV critics, journalists and TV editors has been described. The bone of contention is the genre known as “quality or high-end series”. Its main features are an elaborate production on cinema-film level, first-class actors, a highly complex story and a so-called “horizontal” narrative form that arcs from one episode to the next.

For a long time it was above all American productions like Breaking Bad, Mad Men or Homeland that were the most important representatives of this format. Then step by step many European TV stations started investing in the production of sophisticated series. German television, however, had a hard time dealing with the genre for many years. While ever growing sections of the German middle classes were enthusiastically consuming foreign quality series, German TV stations showed only little interest in investing themselves in the genre. 

  • Berlin Alexanderplatz (WDR, 1980, 14 episodes) © WDR/Bavaria
    Berlin Alexanderplatz (WDR, 1980, 14 episodes)
    Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed the filming of the eponymous novel by Alfred Döblin about the ex-con Franz Biberkopf and the difficult life he led in the Berlin of the 1920s. The gloom and doom series triggered all kinds of controversial discussions when it was first broadcast, in particular with its associative editing, artificial lighting effects and a form of cinematic aestheticism that was unusual for TV productions of that time. Among the critics it is still considered even today to be an ingenious, aesthetically elevated portrait of the political and social trials and tribulations of the Weimar Republic.

Mass instead of class

Audiences, journalists and creative players feel that the TV stations are to blame for this, in particular Germany’s public broadcasters ARD and ZDF. The main point of criticism being – instead of striving for quality, they go for reaching the masses, only productions with high viewing figures are considered to be a success. This is indeed surprising as the ARD and ZDF are under no pressure to get the best ratings as they are financed by obligatory broadcasting fees. Germany’s private stations, on the other hand, do not earn any fees and have to finance their range of programs with advertising and that is why they have to produce for the masses.  

What criteria then in the end are embraced by the term “quality series”? “The term ‘quality series’ is for me more of a battle cry than a category that can be academically legitimated,” says Dietrich Leder, professor for documentary filmmaking, fictional forms and film and television entertainment at the Kunsthochschule für Medien (Academy of Media Arts) in Cologne. “At the moment we are faced with the situation that ‘quality’ is above all defined by how much interest is shown by the viewing public.” That, however, is just one of many features. Leder’s colleague, Lothar Mikos, professor for television science at the Filmuniversität Babelsberg Konrad Wolf (The Konrad Wolf University of Film) in Babelsberg, sees it like this, “German TV stations produce a large number of very successful series for all kinds of target groups – reality TV, simply narrated comedies and detective classics like the famous German Tatort series, to name but a few. That also has to taken into consideration.”     

This is also the position taken by the public broadcasting stations, which still defend themselves against the accusation that the quality is lacking. If we were to produce a niche program solely for a small, sophisticated audience, we would then be faced immediately with the next debate, as ARD boss, Volker Herres, told brandeins magazine at the beginning of 2014. Then we would be reproached for forcing everybody to pay fees for a system that “was not being used at all by a large part of the population”.

New German quality series

Nevertheless it is now becoming more and more interesting for German stations to take a crack at this long-avoided, elaborately produced series format for the sophisticated niche audience. “In the meantime almost all German TV stations have started to invest in quality series,” says Timo Gössler, lecturer in serial writing and producing at the Filmuniversität Babelsberg. There was a first hint of this at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival. That was where the premiere of Deutschland 83 took place – an eight-part spy thriller about a GDR spy in West Germany at the time of the Cold War. It was the first German series ever to be bought by an American TV station. The New York Times praised the series to high heaven, it was even compared with House of Cards

Deutschland 83 was broadcast by Germany’s private station RTL in summer 2015. In January 2016 ZDF aired the series Morgen hör ich auf, the story of a desperate husband and father who becomes a counterfeiter and it was heralded as the German equivalent to Breaking Bad. Also in January 2016 Germany’s first public broadcaster, ARD, showed the six-part political drama Die Stadt und die Macht that was also compared with House of Cards. Babylon Berlin is said to be a particularly promising project – a joint project between ARD and the Pay-TV station Sky to be broadcast in 2017. The series, directed by Tom Tykwer, examines criminal cases from the Berlin of the 1920s. 

Non-linear television

What then are the reasons for this series-production offensive of the German stations? “In the first place it is all about gaining a foothold on the international market. In the second place it is literally about the future of television,” says Timo Gössler. What is meant is an anywhere-anytime, non-linear form of television that has come into being particularly due to the consumption of quality series. Instead of waiting for the appointed time of broadcast, the episodes are consumed horizontally one after the other, often a whole series in one weekend. Until a short time ago DVD and Blueray were the preferred medium for this, in the meantime, however, more and more people are using online streaming services – either the media libraries of the stations themselves  or commercial services like Netflix, which has been available to German audiences since 2014.

What does this then mean for current German productions? “One really decisive factor will be the stations giving up their classical ‘viewing figure’ thinking and them opening up to new formats and strategies,” says Timo Gössler. “It is a learning process that is not at all easy, in particular for the stations.” When the internationally acclaimed Deutschland 83 did not achieve anything like the viewing figures that had been anticipated for its screening in Germany, its producer posted the following question on Facebook, “What went wrong?” “The series was good,” many people answered, “but who would use a television to watch it these days.”

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