Weblet chases Fox

B-TV aims to be Teuton's first U.S.-style network

COLOGNE — Commercial entrepreneurs have long seen regional TV as the domain of pubcasters, and many are put off by legal hurdles that differ from state to state that make launching local channels a minefield.

However, one weblet is bucking the trend to follow in Fox’s footsteps, creating a U.S.-style TV network.

Last month B-TV, the private channel in the southwestern state of Baden-Wurttemberg, was licensed for cable in Lower Saxony on the northern coast, making it the first regional station to step outside its homeland. For B-TV managing director, Bernd Schumacher, this is the first move toward a nationwide campaign.

“When Murdoch started Fox, everybody assumed the market was served to the brim by ABC, NBC and the others, but it became a top player within a few years,” says Schumacher, who studied in the U.S.

Rupert Murdoch’s Fox is Schumacher’s model not only for its strategy of going national from a regional base, but also for the way it designed its program to appeal to younger auds.

B-TV is the only commercial regional operator that has not confined its content to regional news and information programs, but created its own entertainment formats suitable for nationwide broadcast when the time is ripe.

It is also the only regional broadcaster that does not link up with Kirch Group’s program block Sun TV, a mix of comedy talkshows and music programs.

B-TV’s aim of developing a unique profile may have been motivated by Kirch’s requirement that Sun TV be aired in primetime. “We felt it just didn’t fit to have nude standup comics doing interviews in swimming pools in between two blocks of news,” Schumacher says.

B-TV’s main competitor is the existing network of state-owned regional stations that in 1950 joined forces to create ARD, Germany’s first nationwide pubcaster web.

Following the establishment of another nationwide pubcaster in 1962, ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, literally, Second German TV), the individual ARD members’ channels airing on terrestrial frequencies in their home states became known as the Thirds.

Financed by fees and taxes, the Thirds do not carry advertising or sponsorship. “There’s a lot of potential for regional advertising, especially for metropolitan areas,” says Peter Christmann, head of SevenOne Media, the marketing arm of Kirch Group’s webs, which also has contracts with most of the scattered regional stations.

Although regional TV ratings are difficult to assess, SevenOne claims its customers rank among the top 10 of all stations received in their respective areas.

SevenOne concentrates on spots for large brands, leaving smaller fry to the weblets — which is why B-TV is severing its contract with SevenOne as of 2002.

“B-TV’s ambitions to go national were a bit too confusing for our services,” Christmann says.

New market

The weblet now handles marketing through its own subsidiary, B-TV Media, and Schumacher expects that ads will come equally from large brands and regional customers in the long term.

B-TV has a staff of 300 in five studios in Baden-Wurttemberg, and has three studios planned for Lower Saxony, ready to start broadcasting this spring. Schumacher’s faith in his brainchild is best shown in his personal 40% stake in B-TV, and his target to get licenses in the 14 other German states.

This includes North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), where state web TVNRW launched in October. Schumacher believes the state with the largest population has room for competition, and says B-TV’s programming will be the better alternative to TVNRW’s filler material from the Kirch pool.

NRW state law does not allow TV players to target individual cities or to tap advertising from their local firms.