“There is not enough experimentation”
The lifeblood of German children's television is the use of tried and tested, successful formats and popular classics. With new productions, however, the movers and shakers in this TV domain should show more innovation, says media researcher, Professor Dieter Wiedemann.
Professor Wiedemann, what types of children’s series are currently to be found on German television?
Prof. Dr. Dieter Wiedemann | Photo (detail) © private It is noticeable that there are relatively few live-action series. Schloss Einstein is of course one of the exceptions, which has just started its 20th season, or the detective series Die Pfefferkörner (The Peppercorns). Compared to the 1990s and 2000s there are also quite a lot of documentary series in the program: Krasse Kolosse (Crass Colossuses) about huge machines, Mein Bruder und ich (My Brother and I), a documentary about pairs of siblings from other countries, or Anna und die Haustiere. (Anna and her Pets). Furthermore there are also a lot animated productions.
In addition to the more recent series there are also traditional children's programs that have been enjoying large audiences for decades: The “Sandmännchen” (The Little Sandman) has been on the air since 1959, “Die Sendung mit der Maus” (The Program with the Mouse), one of the most successful children's programs on German television, was first broadcast in 1971.
Most of the time it is the parents or the grandparents who decide what small children should be allowed to watch – I'm a grandpa, I know about these things. And as the parents and grandparents had good experiences with such programs, they remember how much they enjoyed them. The fact that these programs are still going strong, of course, can also be ascribed to them being designed especially for children.
Big, strong boys and big, strong girlsWhat have been the main differences between the children's television of the GDR and that of the Federal Republic of Germany since the beginning of 1953?
The aim of children's television in the GDR was to imbibe both boys and girls with the firm standpoint of the proletariat, to ensure that they were committed to socialism and the strengthening of the GDR. In addition, the television professionals there started very early to produce series with strong independent female protagonists, like Das Mädchen Störtebeker (The Störtebeker Girl). In West German series the heroes were at first almost always boys. The two systems cooperated intensely with Czech children’s film makers, who had a strong influence when it came to content and aesthetics. In the 1980s, West German children's television was more original and innovative. In contrast, right up until the end of the GDR the fairy tale films produced there were better, because a lot more time and money was invested in the GDR productions than in the West.
Unser Sandmännchen | The Little Sandman (since 1959, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg/RBB)
The Little Sandman is the most famous and oldest German children's series and it is still on the air today. An animated puppet, loosely modelled on the Sandman figure from the eponymous novel by Hans Christian Andersen, presents short films that focus both on adventure and everyday life. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 there was both a West-German and an East-German version of the show. Since 1991 there has been just one version of the show for the whole of Germany that manages to combine the traditions of the earlier shows. In 2014 The Little Sandman was the most popular children's show among three- to five-year-olds.
Die Sendung mit der Maus | The Program with the Mouse (since 1971, Westdeutscher Rundfunk/WDR)
The first German knowledge and entertainment show that was produced specifically for pre-school children took into account the need for a more reality-based education that was emerging at the end of the 1960s. Even today the show is still packaging knowledge in the form of short documentaries that are suitable for children and combining them with entertaining cartoons and puppet-show stories. By 2016 the show had won around 75 national and international awards, is broadcast in nearly 100 countries and is also gladly watched by adults.
Timm Thaler (1979, Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen/ZDF)
From 1979 to 1995 ZDF (Germany’s second public broadcaster) aired what they called Christmas series for young audiences, multi-episode productions with children and young people in the leading roles. It all started in 1979 with the 13-part series Timm Thaler, the story of a boy who sells his laughter to the devil. Timm Thaler was based, like many of the later German children's series of the 1970s and 1980s, on various works of literature, some well known and some not so well known.
Spuk unterm Riesenrad | Ghosts of the Ferris Wheel (1979, Deutscher Fernsehfunk/DFF)
One of the GDR’s most successful children's series tells the story of three fairy-tale characters from a ghost train who come alive and explore the city of Berlin all on their own. The series is considered to be one of the first attempts by East German television to offer young viewers the opportunity to develop their imagination and creativity, to entertain them, and, at the same time, still ensure their ideological training. There were five follow-up shows to the first Spuk unterm Riesenrad, the last one was Spuk am Tor der Zeit (Ghosts at the Gateway to Time) (2001/2002).
Das Mädchen Störtebeker / The Störtebeker Girl (1980, Deutscher Fernsehfunk)
Luzie, der Schrecken der Strasse | Lucy, The Menace of the Street (1980, Westdeutscher Rundfunk/WDR)
In the early 1980s, WDR (a West-German regional station) decided to expand its cooperation with Czech TV and in 1980 launched the six-part series, Luzie, der Schrecken der Strasse. It centred on the adventures young Lucy has with her friends, along with two plasticene figures who come alive. This period also spawned a few further successful German-Czech productions, for example, Arabela (1981) and Die Tintenfische aus dem zweiten Stock / The Squids from the Second Floor (1986).
Meister Eder und sein Pumuckl | Master Eder and his Pumuckl (1982, Bayerischer Rundfunk/BR)
The adventures of the little, red-haired goblin Pumuckl, who lives with Master Carpenter Eder and is only visible to him, was originally broadcast as a radio play in 1961, then from 1982 to 1989 as a television series. Its transformation to the visual medium of TV combined live action with animated elements, a format which was unique for a German TV production at the time. From the point of view of media education, Meister Eder und sein Pumuckl is considered to be particularly sophisticated, as the goblin, who is naughty, but never malicious, helps younger children to understand the difference between good and evil in an entertaining way.
Schloss Einstein | Castle Einstein (since 1998, Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk/MDR)
These stories about everyday school life and the lives of children and adolescents in a fictional boarding school called Schloss Einstein began in 1998 as a weekly soap opera. This was the public broadcasters’ response to the fact that young viewers were watching more and more popular daily soaps on commercial television. In 2016, the 20th season is to be produced, making Schloss Einstein the world's longest-running fictional children's television series. It has been praised by media educators as a successful combination of entertainment and guidance for young people.
Die Pfefferkörner | The Peppercorns (since 1999, Norddeutscher Rundfunk/NDR)
This detective series for young audiences shows how five friends get together as a team of investigators to solve crimes. The series is located in the Speicherstadt, the historical warehouse district of the port of Hamburg. The young detectives manage to get antiques thieves, environmental polluters and blackmailers convicted. Educationally the show has been assessed positively for showing children and young people how crime should be dealt with and for successfully combining the thrill of the chase or of a manhunt with the typical problems of adolescence, such as being lovesick or being at loggerheads with one’s parents.
Wissen macht Ah! | Knowledge – The Wow Effect! (since 2001, Westdeutscher Rundfunk/WDR)
The 25-minute program is one of the most successful knowledge formats for children on German television. A wide range of questions from everyday life are answered in each episode, for example: What is a Trojan? Or: How does an eraser erase? Its fast, associative changes of subject and its proximity to the world of children are said to be its plus points.
Die Biene Maja | Maya the Bee (1975/2013, Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen/ZDF)
The animated series Maya the Bee, released in 2013, is one of the most popular children's series for the target group of three- to 13-year–olds at the moment. It is an elaborate 3D remake of the TV classic, Maya the Bee, from the 1970s. At that time, within the framework of a cooperation between ZDF and a Japanese production company, some of the most successful animated series for children on German television were produced, including a further Maya the Bee (1975), also Vicky the Viking (1974) and Heidi (1974).
Mein Bruder und Ich” | My Brother and I (2013, Südwestrundfunk/SWR)
The multi-episode documentary series is aimed at a young audience of either school or pre-school age. Two siblings go to foreign countries and have an exciting time, getting to know how people live there, learning the language, going to the local school, exploring interesting places and making friends with local children, who in turn explain the foreign culture to them. So far two shows have been broadcast: My brother and I – in the Caribbean and My Brother and I – in South Africa.
The early children's series were more strongly oriented towards the everyday lives of their young protagonists - what they experienced at school or in the family home. Towards the end of the 1970s ghost stories started to gain popularity in both East and West Germany, meaning that the content focus shifted from the everyday life of the children to the fantasy world of children. In the 1990s, however, the stories of everyday life enjoyed a comeback - although one got the feeling that the children in series like Die Mädchen-WG: Ein Monat ohne Eltern (Girls in a Flat Share – A Month without Parents) were growing up all on their own without parents and without adults. Since the 2000s animated series have dominated the scene, often with vampires or wild animals that have been humanized, or with classic children's characters such as Heidi and Vicky. Programs that show real life and help children to cope with their lives have, however, now become quite rare. In the children's series of the 1970s and 1980s stories about children with strong, individual personalities were told - even in some television series produced in the GDR, where conforming to the collective was usually the order of the day. In the live-action series of today, however, the focus is more on "politically correct" childhood stories.
Between educational tradition and loss of significanceHow do you assess the educational quality of children's TV series?
There are many education-oriented productions on TV, for example, Checker Tobi or Die Sendung mit der Maus (The Program with the Mouse), which in each episode deal with knowledge issues in an entertaining and child-oriented way. For me it is important to continue this educational tradition, but there is too little experimenting. Why, for example, do these educationally oriented programs so rarely embrace the experiences children have playing computer games?
Do children really need TV at all?
Children need entertainment, culture, education - and they need to obtain these things via communicative media and institutions such as books, radio, cinema, schools and sports clubs, as well as via their parents and via television, too. On average, children watch television for 88 minutes a day in Germany, far less than adults. In the next few years television is going to lose its attraction for children. Other mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones are going to become more important.
The Prix Jeunesse and other competitions provide us with an opportunity to regularly compare children’s TV productions on an international level. Which direction should German children's series be moving in?
The realm of German children's programs is currently dominated by Japanese, American and British series. German series have become something of a rarity. After the establishment of the Kinderkanal (Children's Channel) in 1997 there was a certain euphoria to be felt, but they neglected to produce enough of their own programs for children. We focused on successful formats like Schloss Einstein, a children’s soap opera about a boarding school. It is, of course, good that such programs exist, but the broadcasters have not given very much thought, for example, to the idea of producing smaller series. We also seem to have forgotten that you have to cultivate the creative talent that goes into producing programs that appeal to children. I would only be too pleased to once again submit for discussion my idea of introducing a special course of study in children's film production – an idea which unfortunately failed to obtain financing a few years ago. There is, in fact, still a need for it.
Prof. Dr. Dieter Wiedemann, born in 1946 in Liebschitz (CSR), was President of the Konrad Wolf Academy of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg from 1995 to 2012. Today the academy is known as The Babelsberg “Konrad Wolf” Film University. He is also chairman of the board of trustees of the Gesellschaft für Medienpädagogik und Kommunikationskultur (GMK) (Society for Media Education and Communication Culture ) and a member of the board of trustees of the Freiwilligen Selbstkontrolle Fernsehen (FSF) (Voluntary Self-Regulation of Television Association) and has widely published material on children's media and media education.