Why No One is Watching German TV

I mentioned here that I spoke last week at the Cologne Conference and that my topic was what the German TV industry could learn from the American methods of writing and producing episodic drama. In a comment to that post, Richard Cooper asked:

I was wondering if you could write about how the Germans are doing it, and what the American method would change if adopted over there.

The five highest rated hour-long shows in Germany are DR. HOUSE, CSI MIAMI, MONK, CSI and ALARM FOR COBRA 11. The only German show in the bunch is COBRA 11, which is going into it’s 13th season. COBRA 11, as successful as it is, is still a distant fifth at half the audience of CSI. The nearest German show is ranked eighth, and that is TATORT, which has been on the air there even longer than COBRA 11. The new German shows are simply tanking.

American shows dominate there — and all over Europe — even though they are dubbed, set in different places with different cultures, languages, and political, legal and health care systems. The audiences don’t care about those differences. They love the shows anyway.

I believe the American shows are succeeding not because they have higher budgets and bigger stars or brighter sunshine…it’s because they have instantly identifiable franchises with sharply drawn characters that transcend cultural differences. They work because they are the same show every week, year in and year out, only different. That last part sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not. They are consistent. People know exactly what they are going to get.

What I told them is that they can just continue to sit back and air American shows in German…which would be a tragedy for German writers and audiences… or they can make shows that can compete. How do they do that? I said the key to American success is franchise, consistency, and the showrunner/writers room system. I then went on to explain what franchise is, what I mean by "consistency," and how the showrunner system works.

The problem with cop/drama shows in Germany is that the shows are indistinquishable from one another. They all look and sound the same (it’s like color TV hasn’t been invented here). They aren’t distinct. They also aren’t consistent. And the story telling is insanely dull.

The German viewing audience doesn’t know about franchise and the four act structure, but they have watched enough American TV to internalize it…to feel that it is missing from German shows. And they don’t like it.

The franchise problem aside (and it’s a big one), German shows aren’t run by writers and have no writing staffs…they are run by line producers and network program "editors" and are freelance written. To make matters worse, every week a different director comes in…and he brings his own director of photography, assistant director, and film editor. And the director is free to rewrite the script himself. The director also is in charge of the post-production of his episode…from the cut to the mix. So there’s no one looking out for the show…there is no one maintaining and protecting the franchise…not that there is usually a clear franchise to protect. (I believe that one big reason that COBRA 11 has done so well is that it’s the one German show with a distinct, unmistakeable look and franchise)

American shows kick ass there because of how they are conceived, written and the produced. It’s the way the scripts/stories are structure (the four act structure, conflict, etc.). They don’t the four-act structure…in fact, they have no consistent dramatic structure to how TV stories are told.

The conception and writing part doesn’t cost more money…it’s just a philosophical and creative change in how they approach developing shows and telling stories. That can easily be taught. The producing aspect does cost more money…it means paying writers salaries for their exclusive services for the run of the series (and doing the same for the DPs, ADs and editors)….and it means limiting the power and influence of episodic directors. It means making a major paradigm shift in how episodic dramas are made there…and that can’t be done overnight. They also argue they don’t have writers yet who are capable of running shows and that directors won’t accept giving up the power they now have.

On top off that, there isn’t a big financial incentive to change the way things are done there. It costs the networks $200,000-an-episode to buy an American show and three or four times that much to make an episode of an original German series (they don’t have the unions, residuals, etc that we have here)….so, increasingly, the attitude has become "why bother?"

That said Proseiben, one of the big networks there, is now insisting that German shows develop their episodes in a Writers Room. They aren’t paying for staff writers… but they are bringing the writer of the pilot together with a group of freelancers for a couple of weeks in one room to develop the stories for the first season. They haven’t put writers in charge yet, nor have they limited the power of episodic directors to change everything about the show, but it’s a step in the right direction.

8 thoughts on “Why No One is Watching German TV”

  1. I hear complaints from British producers to the effect that it’s writers who are holding back the industry because they won’t team-write like Americans.
    They say that, but then they won’t put writers on the team. Their economic model is one of buying stories, not hiring storytellers.

  2. Lee,
    This is fascinating because it’s as though the German industry treats every episode like an independent film production, which would naturally cause inconsistency in a series. I wonder if the changes will accelerate when a couple of new hit German series start earning bigger audiences and serious revenue. I think a lot of those auteur-style directors would come over the American side very quickly if the numbers were tempting enough.
    It also sounds like the Germans should hire an American producer for the awards shows! What happened to all those great German Expressionists?
    Thanks for taking your time to discuss these differences. I think you could get an in-depth article published on this subject.

  3. “This is fascinating because it’s as though the German industry treats every episode like an independent film production, which would naturally cause inconsistency in a series. I wonder if the changes will accelerate when a couple of new hit German series start earning bigger audiences and serious revenue. I think a lot of those auteur-style directors would come over the American side very quickly if the numbers were tempting enough.”
    Richard, you have to understand that German TV has developed quite differently from American TV, I think (not having any in depth knowledge of the inner structure of American TV). At first there was only one TV station, called the ARD which was kind of government-owned and made up of representatives of all the federal states, meaning that Hamburg, Bremen, Hessen, Bavaria etc.pp. all would produce their own shows and series which would then be aired via the ARD. It also means that for instance “Tatort”, the crime show Lee mentions, would play in a different city with different police crews every episode. Once the show would play in Hamburg with actors from Northern Germany, produced by the NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk), the next installment would perhaps play in Munich produced by the BR (Bayerischer Rundfunk) with mostly Bavarian actors. So, indeed, there was no internal consistency to the show at all.
    Next we got a second TV station, called the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) and this was already a centrally located organisation sitting in Mainz, but still with government reps and a bit on the right side of the spectrum.
    A few years later we got a third station, aptly named “Das Dritte” (the Third) which again was splintered and concentrated heavily on local news and cultural programs.
    The development of private-owned TV stations came only years later and not to everybody’s contentment. Since then the state-owned and the private-owned stations have been in heavy competititon, the state-owned stations claiming to be more serious, having better news reports and being the keepers of culture and education, whereas the privates are said to be mercantile souls, only out for profit and selling their viewers cheap and worthless junkfood.
    But, of course, the privates have copied the means and methods of production from their state-owned forerunners and therefore have similar problems, although they are more US-oriented as Pro7’s attempts at bringing over American know-how via Lee shows.

  4. Lee –
    Thanks for taking the time to respond. To add to the discussion: What does German TV get right? What do you perceive to be their unique strengths in terms of production?
    In my own experience, having worked with several German-American co-productions here in Los Angeles (several commercials and the pilot for Pro-7’s JETS) I have the impression that they treat the filmmaking craft as art (which you allude to here) with a heavy emphasis on the production design. Lots of work with “mood boards” (storyboards) and the like.
    And their work ethic can’t be beat anywhere.

  5. How does the German TV approach compare with nearby countries? I’m curious because ‘Inspector Rex’ is an Austrian TV show which seems to be hugely popular … even here on the other side of the world.
    Is the writing & production approach of ‘Inspector Rex’ closer to the American system or the German system ?

  6. I just wanted to say that your article was a wonderful eye-opener for me.
    Growing up in Germany I watched every show you can imagine on TV, mainly American of course. Even as a kid I knew there was something horribly wrong and non-entertaining about German TV and I always thought it’s just how things are supposed to be and that Americans are just better at everything they do.
    Now, 30 years later and with a Media Design diploma in my pocket, finally getting my teeth stuck into the screenplay writing industry once and for all, I can see that Germans could probably just do as well, if it wasn’t for all these problems you mentioned.
    Apart from dusty old network politics that need rethinking, I think “consistency” (or more the lack of) is the biggest contributing factor to the whole debate. The German film industry is blossoming these days, because everyone works on the same thing for a short time, a one off project. A TV show needs clear and repetitive structures and strong characters time and time again, which it just doesn’t get. You should think we Germans are good at that sort of thing, but for some reason we are not.
    We like stories with a deeper meaning and an artistic flair but can’t quite translate that into a long running TV show. We try to recreate “real” people on TV that simply don’t work, yet we would probably never dare to have our Heiner Lauterbach act out a sometimes borderline racist/discriminating/asperger-type Dr. House. We simply don’t dare. That’s why all the shows fail, they are poor knock offs of the “real” thing we failed to come up in the first place.
    The lack of German identity (what is really German, how do you tell entertaining stories that don’t involve the war?) is still present after all those years. It’s sad but I have become to believe that many Germans enjoy this form of escapism, to identify with a US TV shows for a bit- if only for an hour- then they switch back to their German lifestyle which may just not be in favour of good story telling.


Leave a Comment