German TV its own worst critic

B'cast execs tough on homegrown series versus 'superior' U.S. fare

MUNICH -- Commercial broadcasters in Germany are complaining about the lack of quality in homegrown offerings for the small screen, particularly in light of the critical and ratings acclaim U.S. shows are receiving.

One of the biggest names in German television, RTL head Gerhard Zeiler, made headlines recently with an interview in the weekly newsmagazine "Der Spiegel," during which he praised U.S. television and was highly critical of homemade product.

"Hollywood has made an unbelievable leap forward in terms of quality (in the past few years)," Zeiler said. "The screenplays, the plotting, the introduction of characters -- in many U.S. productions it's quite simply one or even two classes above (German shows)."

A case in point might be RTL's "Post Mortem," a show loosely based on the "Quincy" concept of a crusading medical examiner's department but spiced with "CSI"-style forensic science and the kind of freewheeling camerawork that characterizes shows like "24."

"Post Mortem" premiered in January to a 15.8% audience share, but within a month viewership had dropped almost three percentage points to 13.0%.

" 'Post Mortem' had content problems," said Barbara Thielen, head of fiction at RTL. "The characters were not brought out well enough, and the extreme camera movements distracted from the story. But we're going to stick with it and try to improve the show."

Meanwhile, at RTL's commercial competitor the ProSiebenSat.1 family of channels, head of central license acquisition Ruediger Boess is about as happy as Zeiler is with the quality of Teutonic production.

"Zeiler is completely right," Boess said. "Not only are the American products visually superior, you can build relationships immediately with the characters -- and that is essential."

The head of ProSieben's program planning, Juergen Hoerner, doesn't see that as a problem for his channel. "Yes, there are more good U.S. programs than there used to be, but we're happy about that because we always featured American programs," he said.

ProSieben, which brought such series as "Desperate Housewives," "The X-Files" and "ER" to Germany, also is a major outlet for Hollywood films on German television.

There are a few points of light on the domestic scene. Sat.1 is ordering a second season for two of its shows that debuted in March: "GSG-9" and "R.I.S. -- The Language of the Dead." Although both suffered a viewership drop toward midseason, their numbers climbed back up, leading to the decision to keep them going.

"GSG-9" follows an elite military unit that actually exists -- its troops stormed a Lufthansa jet hijacked by Palestinians in the 1970s -- as it attempts to deal with fictional crises like a hostage-taking at the Russian embassy. Its second season will premiere in early 2008.

"R.I.S.," also set to start its second season in the spring, goes head-to-head with "Post Mortem" and the "CSI" franchise.

Meanwhile, ProSieben has had some success selling its German-made products to American and international audiences. Warner Bros. bought the German reality show format "Beat Your Host" in April, and at the last MIPTV the company sold a domestically produced TV film event called "Raging Inferno," about a fire in Berlin's famous TV Tower, to several European territories. And "GSG-9" will air in Russia and France.

Overall, however, it looks like it will be a long time before a German-made series will have the same kind of impact on domestic television that such American products as the "CSI" franchise, "Law & Order," "24," "Sex and the City" and "The Simpsons" have had on the European continent.