With the rising popularity of American-made children’s programming among German children taking over much of the limited broadcast outlets in German television, co-production involving German and foreign production companies remains fairly limited.
‘Wh’ever enters this business as a co-producer must have courage, a lot of endurance and a really good story,’ says Thomas Haffa, movie producer and head of EM-Entertainment in Munich.
‘We only have three stations that produce their own children’s programs and they are ARD and ZDF, the public stations, and the private station Pro 7.’
Simple economics have kept domestic production activity from growing.
‘When you buy one minute of a children’s TV program, it costs 2,000 German marks at most. A self-produced minute will cost at least 5,000 German marks. That is why many people are afraid to take the risk of producing their own program,’ says Haffa.
But not all. ARD, Germany’s oldest public broadcaster, has received international recognition for its youth educational programming, with such shows as Sendung mit der Maus (The Program with the Mouse).
Since 1970, a cartoon mouse together with a small blue elephant have experienced everyday life adventures. The topics have an educational element, such as: ‘How do the red stripes get into the toothpaste?’
‘We have been able to sell our mouse, which has also been produced with multilingual opening credits, in more than 70 countries,’ says Horst Schering, of WDR, the regional station that produces the show.
The war between private TV and the established public stations, ZDF and ARD, is a permanent topic in Germany. However, it seems that the public stations under public law, which are often accused of being slow-moving, appear ready to make up for lost ground, and children’s TV is one of the fields that they have targeted.
Although the Disney cartoons package went from ARD to private market leader RTL at the end of last year, ARD has replied with a successful new locally produced children’s show featuring Tigerente (Tiger Duck). At the moment, the duck with the yellow and black stripes is the number two children’s show on ARD.
The program with the mouse, which is broadcast once a week, is watched by 770,000 children and 720,000 are watching the Tiger Duck Club. Sesame Street, which is also broadcast by the ARD, is watched by 360,000 viewers.
‘Children are our most honest critics,’ says Helmut Thoma, head of RTL. ‘They decide according to their feelings if they like a program, not according to who or where it was produced.’
Thoma, like other broadcast executives in Germany, still prefers buying shows from foreign countries. The need for children’s TV hours is enormous. At the moment, 130 cartoon programs are broadcast on German channels per week, and the demand is increasing.
‘Wh’ever has the international connections and the possibility to produce is now seriously looking at the local German market,’ says a German production insider.
Ellipse Animation, a subsidiary of the French channel Canal+, recently opened its own office in Munich. ‘We already sold our series Insektors,’ says Bartley Smith-Grosserichter, director of sales, ‘and soon the classic story of the elephant Babar, which is produced by us, will be broadcast too.’
‘Europeans have developed a new self-awareness about children’s TV,’ says Karin Böll, a communications scientist. ‘At least the three stations that are producing their own programs are trying to gain an independent profile and in connection with that, also reputation and image.’
Although the proportion of American-made programming broadcast on German TV far outweighs European-made shows, the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way.
Ravensburger Film + TV from Ravensburg, for example, has increased its output of children’s programming. The Cologne Cartoon from Cologne is also producing more and more for ARD. EM-Entertainment in Munich is starting big new projects with the Australian production company Yoram Gross. They will be bringing a small dragon character, Tabaluga, to TV in 1997. Tabaluga, whose adventures were set to music by the German rock musician Peter Maffay, has had huge sales success in compact disc, books and live acts in German-speaking countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland). Merchandising products have also been licensed through EM-Entertainment, involving such companies as Coca-Cola, Adidas and BMG-Bertelsmann Music Group.
EM-Entertainment is co-producing the show with Yoram Gross and ZDF Enterprises, the commercial arm of ZDF.
Thomas Haffa of EM-Entertainment says: ‘We want to make an international success with this project. We have excellent partners and from the beginning, we also had a perfect string of merchandising partners.’
Haffa adds: ‘With Tabaluga, we want to demonstrate that German co-productions can finally reach international standards.’
However, a lot of work has yet to be done, both from the public and private sectors, to stimulate the local German production community.