Dialogue: Anke Schaferkordt of RTL Television


Anke Schaferkordt is sitting pretty atop German commercial giant RTL Television. RTL last year again defended its No. 1 position, helped by hit U.S. series "House," "Monk" and the "CSI" franchise. But Hollywood labor strikes -- past and looming -- has made delivery of a new raft of U.S. product less than certain. And, like the rest of the German industry, RTL has been unable to land a homemade drama hit.

On the eve of MIPTV, Schaferkordt talks with The Hollywood Reporter about strikes, ratings and German television's sweet addiction to U.S. drama.

The Hollywood Reporter: U.S.-made series have replaced German shows on primetime across the dial. Does that make German channels like RTL more vulnerable to uncontrollable events in Hollywood such as the potential actors strike this summer?
Anke Schafterkordt: It's not just an issue of the strikes -- if you look at what's been coming out of the U.S. in the last couple of years, there weren't any top hits there either, shows that were a big successes in Germany. The established shows, the big brands like "CSI" work but the new shows haven't. Even a show like "Grey's Anatomy" hasn't been a big hit here, though I have to admit I'm a fan.

THR: Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the U.S. drama boom?
Schaferkordt: I think the established series will still work for us for a long time yet. And if another show of the same quality -- another "CSI: Miami" for example -- came along, it would be a huge hit in Germany. What hasn't worked are the series that have a continuing, multi-episode story line. Except in late night, where "Prison Break" has worked well for us. But not in primetime. You see it with shows from "24" to "Lost." These have been huge hits for other channels, but not in Germany. The German viewer isn't ready to commit for 24 weeks to a single storyline.

THR: Do you worry that RTL has become too addicted to U.S. series? "House," "CSI: Miami" and "Monk" are your top ratings winners when it comes to fictional programming.
Schaferkordt: Well that's the thing with addiction. There are always two sides. No one likes being an addict, because you need that next fix. On the other hand, when it comes -- when that 'House' high -- that 33% share -- kicks in, it's fantastic.

And we aren't that hooked on U.S. series. We have just one evening that is completely filled with American shows. But that evening, Tuesday is, with the exception of big events like "DSDS" ("German Idol"), the most successful night of the week. That will likely continue to be the case for a while yet. We're lucky in that our shows have all been renewed and are hits in the U.S. as well. The real problem is when you have a hit in Germany and the series is canceled in the U.S. And we don't have that.

THR: One problem you do have, though, is creating a homemade hit drama.
Schaferkordt: German series have a real tough time at the moment. It's not just the commercial channels. If you look at the younger viewers, the 14-49 demographic, no one has landed a hit with German-made fiction. It's a completely different situation from 7-8 years ago. Then German shows had knocked all the U.S. series out of primetime. You'd only find U.S. shows on the smaller cable channels.

We have the most successful German series in primetime: "Alarm for Cobra 11" which still works well, after so many years. But from the new series that have been launched recently, none have really performed at the desired level. And that goes for us as well as all other German channels.

To be honest, if we could duplicate (the success of the U.S. shows) one-to-one, we would do it, immediately. But I'm convinced that German series will enjoy a comeback. We have to keep working on that. We have to be more experimental and we have to find out what the German viewer really wants. And we will.

THR: Is the problem a lack of innovation on the part of German producers? Most of the new German series look like copies of U.S. shows, with the same visual style and similar stories.
Schaferkordt: Well the U.S. storytelling style is something that has established itself. You can argue whether that is a good thing or not. But if you look at the way German series looked seven to eight years ago, with that slow tempo, the editing style, you can't watch them anymore.

THR: But they were a lot more successful than today's homemade series.
Schaferkordt: Yes, but that was at time when U.S. series were in a slump. People have gotten used to the faster pace, the depth of U.S. series. And the visual style, the better lighting, better camerawork. We've gotten used to it. I've gotten used to it. And German productions have adjusted to that. But I'm convinced that it isn't really about that, it's about stories. You can have the best production values in the world and it won't work if the stories aren't good and the characters aren't interesting.

THR: What knock-on effect will RTL feel from the writer's strike?
Schafterkordt: The immediate effect will be fewer episodes and more repeats for our hit shows. It won't knock a huge hole in our schedule. And looking ahead to the L.A. Screenings, I don't think there will be much to see. I expect it will be more the L.A. readings.

But if you look at the big picture, I think the effect will be seen more with the U.S. networks. My personal opinion is that the networks will increase the number of reality series on their schedule. They've had great success with reality, getting ratings on a level similar to mid-range fiction series for a fraction of the cost. Against that backdrop, I think fiction production will go down.

That's not something we'll profit from because when it comes to reality, the U.S. network pick up formats that are old news in Europe. You ask where the innovation is coming from in German fiction -- I ask where is the innovation in U.S.-made non-fiction? The U.S. is starting to copy Europe.

THR: While top U.S. series continue to deliver for RTL, ratings for Hollywood films continue to slide.
Schaferkordt: The downward trend for movies is something we've been seeing for several years now. It has to do with the expanded DVD exploitation before a film's free-TV premiere. The studios are, in a way, sawing at the TV branch that they're sitting on. The value of feature films is declining year for year. I think we will see the German market more in the direction of the U.S. where eventually you may have a movie of the week on a channel but not much more. In 10 years, I can't imagine we will have big channels with three or four primetime movie slots a week, as is the case today.

At the same time, film classics continue to work. These are always the same films but they still work -- a "Pretty Woman" in the umpteenth airing still draws 18%-20% market share.

THR: Has this changed your acquisition policy with regards to studio deals?
Schaferkordt: Drama series have become more relevant. Everyone is hoping for the next "CSI" or the next "House." That demand hasn't dropped off. I think the boom will continue for the next two to three years. And there is still demand for films. They don't get the ratings they once did but they still get a solid 20% share. But they are becoming more expensive in relation to their success.

When it comes to series, however, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to get that prince. And kissing all those frogs can be very expensive. Series have become more interesting but look at all the U.S. shows that never make it to Germany. So unfortunately, that means we still is have to kiss a whole lot of frogs.