Berlin: FremantleMedia International CEO Jens Richter on the Global Rise of TV Drama (Q&A)

Jens Richter

The London-based TV exec on attending the Berlinale, the dominance of small-screen drama and why there’s always room for one more great show.

Jens Richter, CEO of television production and sales group FremantleMedia International, is one of a new army of small-screen veterans attending Berlin’s European Film Market. While TV sales always have played a major role in the business of EFM, this year the market, and the Berlin Film Festival, is embracing high-end television drama like never before. It’s an effort, says EFM director Matthijs Knol, to “move with the times” and address the fact that TV drama series compete with, and even overtake, cinema in the marketplace and in the cultural conversation.

Richter, 49, has been an observer, and shaper, of those times and that marketplace his entire career. Before moving to London to join Fremantle last year, he spent a decade at Munich-based Red Arrow International, the global production and sales arm of German broadcast giant ProSiebenSat.1. While there, he helped spearhead its expansion into scripted series, including Norwegian crime comedy Lilyhammer and Amazon Prime’s Bosch. Before that, he was managing director at Beta Film, one of Europe’s leading television sales outfits.

Ahead of his first EFM as FMI boss, where he will be presenting new German series Deutschland 83, the married father of three young children spoke to THR about the global rise of TV drama, the impact of Netflix and the “stamp of quality” the Berlinale gives to the small screen.

What are you going to Berlin for?
The Berlinale is an established place where you can meet buyers, also TV buyers, from certain countries, particularly Europe. But this year they have a TV section for the first time, which I think is a great idea because for the last two, three, four years, the people who used to do theatrical films are eager to work in television and TV is getting much closer to cinema in terms of its storytelling, its look and feel. A lot of TV drama series these days are basically a supersized, eight-hour movie. This year we are going to present our new show, Deutschland 83, together with [commercial network] RTL and [production company] UFA. It’s an extraordinary piece of drama set in divided Germany in 1983, at the height of the cold war. It’s the story of one naive, innocent guy, sent from East Germany to be a spy in the West. It fits perfectly with the Berlinale.

Why show it in Berlin and not at MIPTV, the international television market in Cannes in April?
It’s a question of timing. We have the first two episodes finished, so they are ready to show buyers, but it’s also about perception. We see how the television section in Berlin evolves, but the Berlinale is a global brand and its image is of high-quality drama, high-quality theatrical movies. So it’s the right place to launch an outstanding piece of TV drama. I wouldn’t bring a dozen low-quality movies of the week to Berlin or a U.S. cable reality show; it’s not the right platform for that. 

In the U.S., shows like True Detective and House of Cards have sold on the basis of their film-star leads, much like a Hollywood film. Is something similar happening in Europe?
In a certain way, you always had that in Europe, with big stars doing both film and TV. And now you certainly have more Italian, German or English producers working with theatrical talent, be it the writer, director, art designer, whatever. When you sell a package to a broadcaster or a platform, the creative is the key so they really look at who the director is, what will make the show exceptional, how can I market this as a theatrical experience? The difference with the U.S. is that there are fewer theatrical stars with appeal beyond their borders. 

Germany is the second-largest television market in the world after the U.S. Why haven’t there been any big German TV series to match the success of Denmark’s The Killing or France’s The Returned?
Well Generation War, which UFA and TeamWorx also produced, just won the international Emmy and was well received in the marketplace, but strictly speaking it was a miniseries so I take your point. To be fair, though, most local drama everywhere stays local. German drama hasn’t done that much yet. The shows that have traveled, like [cop series] Alarm for Cobra 11 or Kommissar Rex, have been more generic. But this might be our moment. We have put a lot of money into Deutschland 83. I think now is the time for outstanding German productions to go out and go global. But we have to be very careful to pick the right series to take out to the rest of the world and to manage our expectations so we aren’t disappointed.

Are we close to hitting peak drama in the marketplace?
I don’t know. There is a lot of demand out there now, especially with all the new platforms, new online platforms but also, in Europe, the new digital TV platforms that have exploded over the past few years. I do believe, however, that you have to have very clear, very good reasons to produce drama and to distinguish between what is purely local and what could be an international success. We have to pick the right shows because not everything will find a global audience. And if you pick a very young, very edgy drama, you have to know it will air late night, on pay TV or VOD in many territories, which means less money, so you have to make it on a different budget.

What TV series, not from Fremantle, do you wish you’d bought?
There are two ways to answer that: the shows I love and the shows that would have made me a lot of money. From a commercial point of view, I would love to find the next C.S.I. or House — with American drama becoming more serialized and edgy, there’s a real demand for an old-school, closed-episode-style drama. Personally, I love True Detective, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, those incredibly written, serialized dramas that feel like eight-hour films.