German programmers big buyers of foreign shows

When the German author and artist Helme Heine presented his animated television series for children Sauerkraut some years ago, he was not too optimistic about the program's international sales potential. He considered it 'too German'-the characters live in a village with...
September 1, 1998

When the German author and artist Helme Heine presented his animated television series for children Sauerkraut some years ago, he was not too optimistic about the program’s international sales potential. He considered it ‘too German’-the characters live in a village with old, neatly panneled buildings, drink beer and eat sauerkraut all the time. Heine was right; Sauerkraut didn’t sell on the international market.

Vice versa, it’s much easier. American programs are understood quite well by the German audience, and bought frequently by German broadcasters. ‘The American culture is known better than the French in Germany,’ says Kerstin Gühne, head of program acquisitions at Super RTL in Cologne. ‘The French way of filmmaking is opposite to the American and German. It’s much slower and there are more dialogues. German kids don’t like that.’

Like Gühne, most German program acquisition executives prefer series and movies for children from Canada, Australia and the U.S. Super RTL, ProSieben, Kinderkanal and ZDF base their children’s programming on international productions. Public children’s channel Kinderkanal buys 90% of its programs, two-thirds of that from abroad. Super RTL buys 95% of its programs, with 80% of this being international material. Only public broadcaster ZDF produces more of its own children’s programs-ZDF spends only 30% of its DM45-million (US$25 million) budget for children’s productions, on foreign productions.

Susanne Müller, head of children’s programs at ZDF in Mainz, buys more series from Australia and Canada than from the U.S. ‘Australia and Canada are closer to the European way of thinking,’ she says.

But some programs that work in the U.S. or Canada don’t suit German viewers. For example, shows for teens that take place in high-school settings are not as successful as in America. ‘Things like dating after school are not that important in Germany,’ says Müller. ‘Schools are different.’ And the kids have different problems. It’s good when a series for teenagers mentions racism, ‘but it [doesn't] make much sense to show an episode that is about a black boy who moves into a white neighborhood,’ says Super RTL’s Gühne. ‘I would prefer to buy a program that shows race problems with Turks in Germany,’ says Sebastian Debertin, head of program acquisitions and co-productions at Kinderkanal in Erfurt.

Debertin is very interested in children’s series and magazines from Canada, Australia or the U.S., but it’s not always easy to find the appropriate product for the German market. He liked Popular Mechanics for Kids, a live-action magazine show produced by SDA Productions and distributed by Hearst Entertainment. ‘Fantastic presenters, well done, but you can’t dub it.’ Another problem with non-fiction is that objects and backgrounds look different. For example, the trains in the magazine show The Puzzle Place, produced by Lancit Media Entertainment and KCET, are different from German trains.

Fewer cultural differences occur with animation. ‘Animation travels easier,’ says Super RTL’s Gühne. But many animated shows from the U.S. are not suitable for the German audience because they appear to be too violent. Kinderkanal decided not to buy Beast Wars-Transformers, an Alliance and Mainframe Entertainment production, because ‘it showed too much violence,’ says Debertin.

If the animation of a story seems too fast-as in many U.S. productions-ZDF’s Müller decides not to buy it because she thinks German viewers don’t like action that much.

For some American producers, basing a program on a toy, as is the case with the series Beast Wars, seems to be an advantage, but this can be a disadvantage in Germany. ‘The system of programming works vice versa in Germany,’ says Kinderkanal’s Debertin. ‘First, we create the program, then the toy.’

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