Wealthy ARD, ZDF score auds

Bundesliga soccer rights may help web recall glory days

BERLIN — Largely immune to the sharp downturn in ad revenues depressing Germany’s TV market, the country’s long-suffering pubcasters are capitalizing on their rich mandatory viewer license fees to brighten up their programming and score rating surprises.

ARD and ZDF still trail commercial market leader RTL by a narrow margin: RTL had a 14.9% market share in 2002 against ARD’s 14.2% and ZDF’s 13.8%.

But ARD’s recent coup of winning back the coveted Bundesliga soccer league rights — for a cut-rate 45 million euros ($51 million) — will pull auds and recalls the web’s former glory days. It held the rights for 30 years until it was outbid by the burgeoning RTL in 1988.

The buy also proves that the ballooning sports price bubble has burst — commercial channel Sat 1 paid $90.7 million for the previous season.

Sat 1, like its commercial rivals, has been forced into draconian cost-cutting by the advertising slump, something the pubcasters, feeding off $6.8 billion in guaranteed annual viewer fees, have avoided.

Sat 1, which has a 9.9% market share, and RTL both criticized ARD for squandering viewer fees on millionaire soccer players.

But ARD, under general manager Jobst Plog, has staunchly defended the buy, saying the costs for the 90-minute “Sportschau” broadcasts on Saturday evenings will be refinanced through ad revenues and sponsorship.

Winning back the Bundesliga highlights (paybox Premiere holds the pay TV rights) has galvanized the country’s oldest web, which had long been in retreat against commercial rivals.

“It’s a great boon for ARD and will help us with younger viewers,” says ARD spokesman Ralf Plessmann.

But soccer isn’t the only ratings winner. Plessmann said ARD has done especially well with locally made telepics, which strike an increasingly sensitive note with German auds.

Commercial station Pro-7, which by contrast relies heavily on U.S. output, has slipped in recent years.

“Investing in German-made films has been a long-term development, and it’s paying off quite nicely,” Plessmann says, noting only 5% of ARD’s revenues are from advertising.

RTL slightly widened its lead over the pubcasters in the first half of the year, scoring high ratings with its “Pop Idol” format “Deutschland sucht den Superstar.”

But ARD and ZDF have dominated the weekly top 10 lists published in German newspapers in the last few months.

ZDF, under general manager Markus Schachter, had the three highest-rated shows in the first half, including Thomas Gottschalk’s “Wetten, dass?” ARD scored well with German soccer matches and its flagship evening news program “Tagesschau,” whose dominance held up during the Iraq war.

ZDF had a phenomenal triumph in June when a record audience of 4.6 million viewers — an 83% market share — tuned in at 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning to watch a boxing match in Los Angeles between Hamburg-based Ukrainian Vitaly Klitschko and Britain’s Lennox Lewis. ZDF skillfully milked the match, rebroadcasting highlights later in primetime.

To even the most casual viewer, it’s clear that ARD and ZDF have adopted some of RTL’s techniques to win audiences.

Their soccer broadcasts are greatly improved, better promoted and more colorful — no longer the staid affairs of yesteryear.

“ARD and ZDF have increasingly imitated the way RTL turns broadcasts into big events,” says RTL spokesman Thorsten Grothe. “They’re trying to copy our success. But I think the viewers can distinguish and prefer the original from the copy.”

Kristina Fassler, a spokeswoman at Sat 1, sees things differently.

Her station has suffered in the wake of the collapse of its owner, the Kirch Media empire. She thinks ARD and ZDF may be scoring summer victories because the cash-strapped commercial stations have been forced to broadcast more reruns.

“ARD and ZDF have the stable revenues to broadcast more new material in June to August,” she says. “We have to get by with far less money than they have. The gap is getting larger and larger.”

(Christian Kohl in Cologne contributed to this report.)

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