Once, non-English-language TV series did not break into English-speaking countries. This is no longer the case. For Fred Burcksen, president and CEO of ZDF Enterprises, what matters to worldwide viewers today is the story, not the language in which it is told. The commercial arm of the German public broadcaster offers scripted series for prime-time audiences, others for tweens, animated series for children and documentaries and factual programs.
WS: Does there continue to be demand for scripted shows?
BURCKSEN: There is still high demand for good storytelling, good scripted programs. The market is almost overheated. There is so much demand, indicating that it’s a challenge to find the right talent for the right production. We consider that the biggest challenge.
WS: As so many global streamers are keeping programming for themselves, is that creating additional opportunities for you?
BURCKSEN: It does. Again, there are opportunities and challenges. What we are discussing is called vertical integration. The big groups cover a complete chain of rights, and they have their own playouts like Netflix and WarnerMedia. They try to keep things within their group, which is fine, and to be honest, we do the same. ZDF Enterprises is basically a studio. We cover the whole chain of rights from early development through financing, production, sales and longtail sales as well. Our group consists of some 20 production companies and distribution companies. It’s about vertical integration.
On the other hand, if you want to be a partner for the other groups, you need to be involved very early in development. You need to control the development process as well; otherwise, there’s no chance to play a role in the project. That’s what we try to do.
WS: With so many outlets looking for scripted series, would you give some examples of finding the right home for a title, and what considerations go into that decision?
BURCKSEN: You need two parties to find the right home for your content. It starts with the buyers at the networks or platforms. You need to listen carefully to their needs. It begins with their requests. Every discussion we have about product starts with: What are you looking for? What is your target audience? What’s the playout? Is it more linear, more nonlinear? Is it a combination of the two? And that, combined with the knowledge of our titles, will hopefully lead to a perfect solution for the program.
Having said that, we’ve learned that a program can function on various networks for different audiences. One example is the Rosamunde Pilcher Collection, a collection of 90-minute TV movies. On ZDF, it’s a prime-time highlight and works very well for an adult audience. But it’s also very successful on commercial television in Italy in an access prime-time slot.
WS: Are there various financing models you use for different projects?
BURCKSEN: There is no one solution. The bottom line is that if you want to be a partner on any project, you need to be there from the beginning. Maybe a decade ago, you could wait until you could see a rough cut or read a script. Now you have to get involved in the early development by securing rights, maybe book rights, but you need to be involved from the beginning. Then it comes down to: Is this mainly a local production? Is it an international co-production? Is it being financed by a platform entirely, or do you need more than one partner?
We’ve got examples of each way of financing. We have a series called The Window, a drama thriller that explores the complex and dark off-field machinations of the world of soccer. It was produced by Germany’s Boogie Entertainment and ZDF Enterprises, in co-production with Japan’s Fuji Television Network and Belgium’s Velvet Films and Streamz.
We’ve also done more complicated co-productions where we need six or seven partners to finance the high-end production. [The considerations are] is it a true international co-production or is it a more local project that is being covered by two partners? For instance, Scandinavian crime dramas are financed by the Scandinavians and ZDF. We have Agatha Christie’s Hjerson, a modern-day Agatha Christie spin-off about Sven Hjerson, a once-renowned criminal profiler who retires from the spotlight, and Klara Sandberg, a trash TV producer who wants to reset her career with a true-crime show that stars him. It was produced by BR•F, TV4/C More, ZDF, Agatha Christie Ltd. and Nadcon Film. For Agatha Christie’s Hjerson, the financing model was relatively simple, but there are more complicated examples as well.
WS: Non-English-language scripted shows used to travel only among non-English-language territories. That has changed.
BURCKSEN: It probably started with the Scandinavian noir series some 15 years ago. I remember The Killing. The BBC bought the series from us and decided to televise it in the original language with English subtitles. That was daring at the time and a real breakthrough. Since then, it has come down to the story, not the language. The Scandinavian wave is still very strong. We’ve seen it flow toward Belgium, which offers a good output of original content. Spain is coming up, and we are currently looking at Central and Eastern Europe. We have some great content from Ukraine and Russia. It’s not about the language anymore.
WS: While scripted series get a lot of attention, ZDF Enterprises also has a significant range of factual programs and documentaries. Are there subjects that co-production partners or buyers are requesting now?
BURCKSEN: Yes, and we are talking about a vast genre that includes all the magazine programs. We try to focus on wildlife, science and history. That is the core of our catalog and activities. Demand for these three genres is high, particularly for sustainability, developing circular economies or going green.
For example, we are very proud to have the groundbreaking series Rescued Chimpanzees of the Congo with Jane Goodall in our catalog. It uncovers Jane Goodall’s journey to create the largest chimp sanctuary in Africa. It follows the rehabilitation of a cast of orphaned chimpanzees from recovery to eventually living in a wild environment. It is produced by Off the Fence with the support of the Jane Goodall Institute for Curiosity Stream in association with ZDF Enterprises.
Our documentary series Ancient Superstructures is about ancient marvels among the most studied and scrutinized monuments in the world, which remain shrouded in mystery even today. Now in its second season, Ancient Superstructures reveals the secrets behind some of the world’s most famous monuments, such as the Louvre, Angkor Wat and the Hagia Sophia. It is produced by Pernel Media in association with RMC Découverte, Histoire and ZDF Enterprises.
WS: ZDF Enterprises has ZDFE.junior, a catalog of programs for young viewers. What demand are you seeing for children and youth?
BURCKSEN: There continues to be a consistent demand for high-quality, live-action drama series for tweens and preteens. One example is Surviving Summer, a series we developed with Joanna Werner from Werner Film Productions in Australia. As I said, we need to be involved in development. It’s a coming-of-age series about coming out that was picked up by Netflix on a global scale.
Of the many highlights from our animated series, I would like to point out two, which are now launching their second seasons. Our preschool series School of Roars helps children prepare for school life by exploring a child’s first year through lovable mini monsters. They go to school at night and, through their adventures, experience life lessons such as caring, sharing and friendship. And Scream Street is a funny, scary, stop-motion animation show in which zombies, vampires, mummies, glamorous witches and monsters put a whole new spin on community spirit.
A trend we see in productions for children and youth is the demand for more diversity. We are even talking about gender-neutral animation series. There is also a need for more education-oriented preschool series and edutainment series. It’s not a new trend, but we feel there’s an energy for this kind of program.
WS: How have scripted productions been proceeding considering Covid is still with us?
BURCKSEN: The difficulties that we had were greatest during the first six months of the pandemic because everything was new and there were uncertainties. Now with the protocols that we have in place, we can produce. There are no delays, there might be short interruptions because there is a Covid case, but everything is under control.
We’ve benefitted from the changes we’ve had to implement, for example, from the fact that we now sign all our contracts digitally. We have learned how to work with video conferences. That was unheard of two years ago. But the biggest challenges are still in maintaining your contacts, your partnerships, your relationships. Building relationships and having to maintain them only on a video basis is getting harder and harder. Having said that, we’re pretty sure that not all the markets we used to go to before the pandemic will be strong enough to survive after the pandemic. But we need to be able to go out and sit with our partners and clients. That’s something we definitely need.
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ZDF Enterprises’ Fred Burcksen – WORLD SCREEN