High Quality or High Viewing Figures?
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)
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.
Heimat (ARD, 1984 – 2004, three series , 30 episodes)
This cinematic trilogy by director and author Edgar Reitz – “Heimat” (1985), “Die Zweite Heimat“ (1992),“Heimat 3” (2004) – follows the fate of a family living in a village in the South-West of Germany. This opus that lasts for over 50 hours merges fiction with documentary into a chronicle of German history starting in the period after the First World War right through to the turn of the millennium. “Heimat” received a lot of attention on an international level. With its authentic setting of scene, epic narrative style and its switching from black and white to colour the trilogy pre-empted the innovative aesthetics and narration of modern US series.
Kir Royal (ARD/WDR 1985, one series, 6 episodes)
This six-part TV series focuses on tabloid reporter Baby Schimmerlos and the Munich socialite scene with VIPs from the realm of politics, business and culture. Director Helmut Dietl wrote the screenplay in collaboration with bestseller author Patrick Süsskind. (The Perfume). This derisive caricature of the Munich glitterati and tabloid scene of the 1980s is ablaze with trenchant dialogues and satirical innuendo. “Kir Royal” was awarded the Adolf Grimme Prize in 1987 and even today is still considered to be one Germany’s best TV series.
Weissensee (ARD, since 2010, so far three series, 18 episodes)
It is the story of two families living in East Berlin in 1980 (1st series), 1987 (2nd series) and 1989/1990 (3rd series). Right from the start the series was a hit with both viewers and press. The subject matter is the last decade of the German Democratic Republic through to reunification. This family saga is considered to be a successful attempt at telling German history through the eyes of the former citizens of the GDR and to present it in a narrative form that is geared to the way the people actually experienced it individually. A fourth series is in the pipeline.
Im Angesicht des Verbrechens (ARD 2010, ten episodes)
At its premiere at the International Film Festival in Berlin in 2010 this detective series by director Dominik Graf was celebrated as a milestone in German TV history. When it was later broadcast on TV the viewing figures did not at all come up to expectations and this triggered a major media debate on the quality of TV series. One of its major plus points is said to be the epic form of its staging, for example, in atmospheric, often drastic milieus in and around the Berlin police and the Russian mafia.
Stromberg (Pro Sieben, 2004 – 2012, five series, 46 episodes)
The idea for “Stromberg” was spawned by the British comedy series “The Office”. A camera team accompanies the everyday office routine in a fictitious insurance company. The pivotal element of the stories is the somewhat inept departmental manager Bernd Stromberg. “Stromberg” is a mockumentary that was conceived as a parody of the popular docu-soaps. These are characterised by the presence of the camera team as part of the action. The critics saw the charm of the series in its “mixture of comedy and tragedy”.
KDD-Kriminaldauerdienst (ZDF, 2007 – 2009, three series, 28 episodes)
Kriminaldauerdienst (KDD) is a term describing the rota duty of the German Criminal Investigation Department that is on call round the clock. The series accompanies a fictitious KDD unit on duty in Berlin-Kreuzberg and was praised by the press for its authentic depiction of police work and its complex narrative style that moves from one episode to the next. When the series was taken off the air in 2009 due to poor viewing figures, many media organs reacted with criticism of what, in their opinion, was the much too conventional approach of the movers and shakers in the German TV sector.
Der Tatortreiniger (NDR since 2011, so far five series, 24 episodes)
Building cleaner Heiko “Schotty” Schotte is at the centre of the action in this series. He has specialised in cleaning up the mess at the scenes of bloody crimes. The actual crimes are of minor importance, the emphasis is on the quirky scenes in which the crime scene cleaner encounters the friends and family of the murder victim. For the critics “Der Tatortreiniger” with its mix of psychograms and comedy represented a welcome contrast to the conservative range of programs of Germany’s public service broadcasting.
Deutschland 83 (RTL, 2015, so far just one series, eight episodes)The series tells the story of a young GDR spy who is sluiced into the West German army, in order to get hold of information about the deployment of US medium-range rockets on German soil. With its mix of “Zeitgeist” and spy story “Deutschland 83” met with international acclaim right from the start. It was the first German series at all to be shown on American pay-TV and was also a hit on British television. With German audiences, however, “Deutschland 83” sadly did not achieve the viewing figures it had hoped for.
Die Stadt und die Macht (ARD, 2016, one series, six episodes)
The press praised “Die Stadt und die Macht” as a well-made genre-mix of political thriller, family drama and moral tale of the German capital Berlin. Immediately after it was first broadcast in January 2016, the series could be downloaded via the streaming portal Netflix Germany. This was taken as a sign that a rethink had taken place concerning public broadcaster productions – instead of competing with video-on-demand portals, partnership was sought to establish access to those viewers who do not watch classical television.
Morgen hör ich auf (ZDF, 2016, one series, five episodes)
The story about the highly indebted owner of a print shop who is forced to become a counterfeiter is a take on the US cult series “ Breaking Bad”. It is interesting to note that this was the series that was accused by film journalists of copying international bestseller formats, instead of developing its own stories. Nevertheless, “Morgen hör ich auf” is considered to be a success, in particular for its genre-mix of comedy, drama and whodunit.
Babylon Berlin (ARD/Sky, shooting started in spring 2016, one series, 16 episodes 2016)
“Babylon Berlin” has finally enabled Germany to gain a foothold on the international quality series market: a record budget of 40 million euros, an internationally renowned director (Tom Twyker) and, above all, the first cooperation on German television between a public broadcaster and a Pay-TV broadcaster (Sky). It is the story of a young detective inspector in the Berlin of the 1920s and it is to go out at the beginning of 2017, first on Sky and then on free TV.
Mass instead of classAudiences, 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 seriesNevertheless 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 televisionWhat 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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