German exec’s tough line keeps RTL on top

Schaeferkordt serves up sport to sweeten cuts

Germany’s top commercial web RTL has been scoring major knockouts against its rivals lately with broadcasts earning market shares that recall an earlier era when there were only two Teuton webs.

RTL got a whopping 49.2% overall market share (and 51% in the 14-49 target group) when an average 10.5 million watched the first race of the Formula 1 season in Bahrain on March 14. It featured Germany’s seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher, who at age 41 came out of retirement after three years.

Just six days later, German-based Ukrainian heavyweight Wladimir Klitschko topped that with a 52.8% market share overall (50.8% in the 14-49 target group) when an average of 12.6 million and a peak of 13.7 million watched him knock out American challenger Eddie Chambers.

RTL, which has been the market leader in Germany for 18 years, has also grabbed the headlines for its impressive bottom line in Europe’s biggest market.

Cologne-based Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland, which includes RTL, RTL2, Vox and N-TV, is the bastion of Luxembourg-based RTL Group’s earnings. It contributed stellar returns in 2009 of $500 million despite a pan-European drop in advertising revenues, thanks to cost cuts that began well before the economic crisis bit in late 2008.

So what’s its secret?

The answer is Anke Schaeferkordt, topper of both RTL Television and Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland, who firmly believes that “it’s a fallacy to think a lot of money automatically means a lot of quality.”

She has acquired a towering reputation for mercilessly effective cost cuts that don’t damage the product — or ratings — since taking the reigns in 2005.

“At a very early stage we started scruitinizing everything and forced the pace on refining things,” says Schaeferkordt. “We changed structures and cut costs but we also made selective investments. That’s been the recipe for programing as well as every other area of the group.”

Schaeferkordt, previously Gerhard Zeiler’s deputy at Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland, continues, “With record numbers of viewers and good financial results we’re now harvesting the fruits of those earlier efforts,” she says.

And she added a warning that cuts would continue “because there is so little visibility about overall market conditions.”

The strong perf in Germany played a major role in helping the RTL Group, Europe’s leading broadcasting conglom with 45 TV channels across the region, report solid 2009 figures.

Earlier this month RTL Group topper Zeiler said net profit was $407 million, up slightly on last year, on revenue down 6.3% to $7.4 billion, thanks to cost cuts and an unexpected uptick late in the year.

RTL’s results put the deep-pocketed pubcasters to shame.

RTL remained the top-rated commercial web in February with a 17.9% market share in the 14-49 target group, far ahead of ProSieben (10.9%) in second and Sat.1 (10.6%).

Among all demos, pubcasters ARD scored 14% and ZDF 13.8%, leaving RTL a close third with 12.7%.

That is an impressive result considering that the pubcasters shared the TV rights to the Vancouver Winter Olympics, traditionally an audience pleaser.

A big part of RTL’s success can be traced to Hollywood imports such as “House,” “CSI,” “Monk,” “Bones” and Teuton adaptations of “Got Talent” (Das Supertalent), “Farmer Wants a Wife” (Bauern sucht Frau), “Idol” and “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!”

“House” — which Schaeferkordt says is among her favorites — is the most popular Hollywood series in Germany, with some 27% of the 14-49 target group.