U.S. shows dominating German TV


COLOGNE, Germany -- Leaders of Germany's once unassailable TV production sector have been sandbagged by a barrage of U.S. hit series. Now they're mad as hell and they aren't going to take it anymore.

It is no secret that U.S. series are on the rise internationally -- shows like "Lost," "Desperate Housewives" and "CSI: Miami" are driving a renaissance in American programming around the world.

But nowhere has the success of U.S. series been as dramatic as in Germany. Just two years ago, there were no American-made dramas in primetime on the top four national networks. German programming was king.

Now, no fewer than 20 American dramas air in primetime on Germany's commercial networks -- from "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," "House" and "Monk" on RTL to "Criminal Minds" and "NCIS" on Sat.1 to "Invasion" and "Lost" on ProSieben.

Where once Berlin cops bagged the bad guys in homegrown series like "Wolff's Turf" and "Abschnitt 40," German viewers are now tuning in to watch William L. Petersen hunt down the Las Vegas underworld in "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and Mandy Patinkin outwit America's most wanted in "Criminal Minds."

"The U.S. shows are very fast in the way they tell stories; they go deeper, to a more psychological level," said RTL spokesman Claus Richter. "We see a change in viewer patterns, especially among younger viewers, where, at the moment, German shows just aren't interesting."

But that could change, and sooner than many in Los Angeles expect. A look at debuting local product in the coming months suggests 2007 could be the year German TV fights back. Producers in Berlin, Munich and Cologne have learned the lessons of "CSI" and "Criminal Minds." New shows like RTL's "Post-Mortem" or "Special Unit" on Sat.1 are faster, slicker and unafraid to address the darker areas of the human psyche.

"What 'CSI' showed was that a TV show has to look and feel almost like a movie," said Jens Richter of Seven One International, which sells "Special Unit" worldwide. "New shows like 'Special Unit' have this look and feel. The setting is Germany, but the style is very American."

"I've been producing shows for German TV for 15 years, and this is the worst it has ever been (for local producers)," said Hermann Joha, head of Cologne-based production company Action Concept. "It used to be even the worst German series did better than the U.S. shows; now, even the best stuff has a hard time competing." Action Concept has brought in U.S. showrunners to help design American-style series "Hurricane in Berlin" for Sony Pictures International Television and "Fast Track" for ProSieben.

"Television is all cycles, and at the moment, U.S. series are the ne plus ultra," Richter said. "But that will change. People will want to see their own stories again, even if they are updated a bit in terms of style. The German series isn't dead. The audience will come back to it."

German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF still program local-language shows in primetime as a duty to their fee-payers. But commercial stations have all but abandoned homemade drama in favor of comedy and other show formats, where there is no international competition.

Industry commentators say local producers are likely to have a fight to regain the lucrative primetime pinnacle from U.S. series.

"It may sound simple, but we are just giving the audience what it wants," RTL's spokesman said. "It's not that we didn't have U.S. series before, but they used to run late night or on Saturday afternoon. Now they're all in primetime, and the German audiences are loving it."

Shows like "CSI," "CSI: Miami" and "House" regularly draw 5.5 million or more viewers a week. In the key 14-49 demographic, these shows pull a market share of more than 25%.

On Sat.1, "NCIS" and "Criminal Minds" draw 3.5 million-3.9 million viewers a week for a 16%-17% market share among 14-49 year-olds.

Even smaller cable channels like Vox and Kabel 1 are hitting ratings records with American shows. "CSI: NY" draws up to 20% of the 14-49 demo for Vox, and crime series "Cold Case" and "Missing" deliver market share in the solid double digits for Kabel 1.