Yanks’ tube invasion

Hot U.S. series make inroads in Teuton TV landscape

While U.S. series never disappeared from German TV, for years they took a backseat to local programming and were largely relegated to second-league channels or nonprimetime slots.

That may be slowly changing thanks to hit shows such as “CSI: Miami” and “House” on RTL Television, Germany’s leading commercial web.

The broadcaster formerly would pride itself for showcasing hit German primetime series and popular entertainment such as “Im Namen des Gesetzes” (In the Name of the Law), “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” and “Deutschland sucht den Superstar,” the local version of “Pop Idol,” and all but ignoring American series.

U.S. shows still remain limited on RTL, but they are increasing. American series make up about one-third of RTL’s total scripted content, including “CSI: Miami,” “House,” “Law & Order,” “Monk,” “Smallville” and this season’s only new imported series, “Rome.”

Rival web Sat 1, which has similarly concentrated on local programming, also is introducing new U.S. fare on primetime, such as “Criminal Minds” and “Commander in Chief,” in addition to tested series like “Navy NCIS,” but maintains a much higher quotient of domestic fare.

Nevertheless, recent Hollywood series have won points among local buyers. Dirk Schweitzer, head of acquisitions at RTL Television, admits that U.S. series are a lot more profound and complex than they used to be.

While there appears to be a growing acceptance of U.S. shows among local auds, it hasn’t exactly translated into a significant change in strategy at the broadcasters.

Most American series continue to air on the more youth-oriented webs, such as ProSieben (“Desperate Housewives,” “Lost,” “Queer as Folk,” “The L Word,” “The OC”), Vox (“CSI,” “Crossing Jordon”) and RTL 2 (“Stargate Atlantis,” “Battlestar Galactica”), all of which depend primarily on U.S. content.

The mainstream channels, pubcasters ARD, ZDF, RTL and Sat 1, remain cautious with U.S. product, despite the widespread belief that buying Hollywood product can be cheaper than producing comparatively extravagant domestic series.

Says one buyer: “You usually have to buy a lot more than what you really want. And if it flops, you still have to buy the complete season or several seasons. With our own productions, we know whether we have a hit or not with just the pilot or with a few episodes.”

Pubcasters, meanwhile, are much more keen on producing their own series and TV movies, partly to justify their huge license-fee generated budgets.

Nevertheless, U.S. product can be very attractive and a number of shows have won huge followings in Germany, although the growing popularity of longer story arcs in American series has yet to fully convince local programmers.

Indeed, broadcasters are waiting to see exactly how German auds take to seasonlong story arcs rather than stand-alone episodes on series as diverse as RTL’s “Rome” and “Smallville” and ProSieben’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.”

While RTL picked up “Prison Break” last year, it has yet to premiere here and it’s not clear whether the hit show will air on RTL or its affiliate Vox.

Vox program director Ladya van Eeden says she likes the prison thriller but notes that its ongoing story arc makes it a difficult series for viewers unaccustomed to following TV series so strenuously in order not to lose the plot.

Vox managing director Frank Hoffmann says story arcs are “not ideal for Germany because viewers here are accustomed to each episode having an ending.”

Nevertheless, Germans are used to the long story arcs of soaps and telenovelas. In the 1980s, “Dallas” and “Dynasty” reigned supreme on pubcasters ARD and ZDF, respectively.

More recently, locally produced daily soaps such as “Good Times, Bad Times” on RTL and “That’s Life” on Sat 1 have proved megahits.

However, the initial success of telenovelas triggered a surge in telenovela productions, with skeins on all the major broadcasters. Not surprisingly, the trend appears to be waning, as once hit shows continue to lose audience market share.

“That’s Life,” the Teutonic version of “Ugly Betty,” scored record ratings with the end of its first story arc in September: 4.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the series climax, as the newly beautified Lisa married the man of her dreams.

Loath to part with the hit series despite the story’s obvious end, Sat 1 has continued the skein by introducing a new young male lead character. While still doing respectably, the series has suffered a major ratings drop, losing 600,000 viewers in the first week with the semi-new cast.

That’s still leagues better than the broadcaster’s all-new telenovela, “Love Is in the Air.” The skein has seen its audience numbers drop from 1.5 million to around 800,000 since its launch in August.

Similarly, RTL’s new telenovela, “Alles was zaehlt” (All That Matters) also proved disappointing, with aud numbers of fewer than 1 million.

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