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Year’s a tonic for Teutonic exec

ZDF topper Schaechter expecting good things in 2006

BERLIN — German pubcasters ZDF and ARD capped an unexpectedly strong ratings year with a spectacular victory at the negotiating table Dec. 21 that keeps free TV Bundesliga soccer rights in their hands, on their terms and at the broadcast times they want.

In doing so, they handed paybox Premiere, which has used live soccer to lure subscribers for the past 14 years, a devastating defeat.

ZDF topper Markus Schaechter expects good things in 2006, when February’s Winter Olympics in Italy and the June-July World Cup soccer tournament that Germany is hosting gives pubcasters a leg up on commercial rivals.

ARD and ZDF are also flush with cash — some $7 billion in guaranteed annual viewer fees — that leaves them largely immune to the advertising slumps that still plagues their competitors. 

“We’ll have another strong year in 2006,” says Schaechter, whose web won a startling nine of the top 10 spots in the ranking of Germany’s most-watched programs in 2005.

Thomas Gottschalk’s “Wanna Bet?” won seven of the top 10 notches, including the top two, to underscore the Malibu resident’s claim that his is the most-watched show in Europe, with just under 15 million viewers.

An ARD soccer match captured the third-highest spot while commercial webs RTL, Sat 1 and ProSieben were shut out for the first time in years.

“The commercial networks were caught off-guard and hit by the economic crisis,” says Schaechter, who adds that managers at commercial rivals made serious blunders. “It’s also possible they’ve grown a bit tired and complacent after their successes in the 1990s. In any event, it’s hard to see anything left of the creativity and esprit they once had.”

The ZDF managing director was still savoring the shock triumph over Premiere, which had played hardball and offered soccer authorities a package that hinged on forcing the pubcasters’ free TV soccer highlight programs into the midnight hours.

The gamble backfired, and the paybox ended up losing its own pay TV rights to new cable entityUnity Media in a three-year deal worth $500 million per annum.

The defeat wiped nearly $1 billion from Premiere’s value when its share price plunged 40%, although it has recovered slightly after Premiere launched a legal challenge against the new cabler.

Schaechter said for ZDF and ARD, retaining the rights to show free TV highlights shortly after the 3:30 p.m. matches conclude for the 2006-09 seasons is a huge victory. 

“Keeping the free TV rights reflects the soccer league’s enduring faith in our authoritative coverage of major sports events,” says Schaechter. “The Bundesliga broadcasts are incredibly important for our image.”

The 18-team first division enjoys cult status in Germany, and free TV broadcasts attract big numbers in all age groups. They’re especially important for attracting younger, hipper audiences to the pubcasters and balance out their older-skewing image, as is “Wanna Bet.”

Gamer is the “last thing still around that the entire family can watch together,” says Schaechter, who is in his fourth year at the helm. “There’s no other show like it anymore that cuts through the generations.”

Schaechter said another factor helping pubcasters was Germany’s astonishingly complex political year, marked by an unscheduled federal election, messy coalition talks and a change of government.

“The public’s appetite to know more about what was going on with the election and afterwards was extraordinary,” says Schaechter, whose web devotes half its airtime to news and information.

“The commercial networks made a big mistake by not expanding their news offering. I think in tough times people turned to information shows to get their bearings.”

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