BERLIN Having blond hair or blue eyes might not have been a formal requirement for German TV anchors and reporters but that distinctive Teutonic look seemed to be a tacit prerequisite in a country that was for so long oblivious to its growing non-white population.
Yet suddenly newscasts have been flung open to ethnic journalists with foreign names speaking flawless German.
There are 15 million residents with an “immigrant background,” as non-whites are referred to in a country of 82 million. As Germany celebrated its 60th anni May 23 as a post-WWII democracy, the growing numbers of ethnic minorities on TV provides an illuminating example of a country coming to terms with its past and present.
Former WDR topper Fritz Pleitgen, who was pubcaster ARD’s U.S. correspondent in Washington and New York from 1982 to 1988, says German TV has made important strides with diversity, even though it still has a long way to go in comparison to the U.S. and U.K.
“When I came back from America in 1988 it dawned on me that you only saw Germanic-types of people on TV in Germany,” Pleitgen tells Variety. “I had really liked what I saw on TV in the U.S. and realized we had to start changing that in Germany. Even though we’re still far away from fully reflecting the country’s immigrant population, I’m extremely pleased that we’ve made headway toward changing that. It’s still seen as a bit exotic, but it’s gradually becoming normal. And that’s a good thing.”
According to a study by Horst Poettker, a journalism professor at the Technical U. of Dortmund, only about 3% of journalists in Germany are from the immigrant community even though they comprise about 20% of the overall population.
Things started to change in Germany in 2000 when the incoming center-left government did away with Germany’s archaic 1913 citizenship law based on blood and replaced it with a modern one that made it easier for foreigners to become naturalized citizens.
But there were immigrant industryites who forged the way for others before that.
“It’s changed a lot,” says Cherno Jobatey, a popular host of pubcaster ZDF’s “Morgenmagazin” morning news show.
Jobatey, whose father came to Germany from Gambia, told Variety there were raised eyebrows when he became Germany’s first black anchor with the show’s launch in 1992.
“It was tough at first. If I didn’t have such good ratings, it would have been a lot harder. Good ratings always help if you’re a minority,” says Jobatey.
“Morgenmagazin” has grown from a paltry 50,000 viewers at its launch to 2.5 million and a 28% share nowadays. “On a bad day we still have a 20% share,” he says.
Jobatey, who began his career as a print journalist and became a local reporter for pubcaster ARD’s Berlin web SFB before jumping to ZDF, recalls hearing of one exec blasting managers who wanted to give him the job.
“He told them ‘How could you even think about hiring a guy like this?’ They said that they just liked what I was doing and I got the job.”
After his first show, one viewer called ZDF to say she really enjoyed watching Jobatey but was worried there was something wrong with the studio lighting because his skin appeared so dark on her TV screen.
Huelya Oezkan, who was born in Turkey and moved to Germany with her family when she was 7, has hosted ZDF’s “Heute in Europa” since 2001. She had to deal with racist mail from viewers at first.
While Jobatey and Oezkan might have been pioneers, in the past two years they have been joined by many others.
At ZDF there is co-anchor Dunja Hayali, whose parents immigrated to Germany from Iraq, and at RBB in Berlin there is Mitri Sirin, whose parents came from Turkey.
ARD Middle East correspondent Golineh Atai was born in Tehran and grew up in Germany while ARD latenight news anchor Ingo Zamperoni’s father emigrated from Italy.
Commercial web RTL is proud of its all-round talent Nazan Eckes, who is part of the large Turkish community.
Pleitgen, like Jobatey, says he is looking forward to the day when a non-white anchor makes it onto the team of a half dozen rotating anchors at “Tagesschau,” ARD’s hugely popular flagship 15-minute newscast at 8 p.m.
“That is definitely going to happen one day,” says Pleitgen. “I think it would make ‘Tagesschau’ a lot more interesting.”