The Saccharine Offensive

Embarrassing ARD papers reveal how the licence fee funded institution wants to turn film makers into prime-time dummies

Sometimes the disaster begins in the conference room, without anyone outside being aware of what has taken place: after all, itŐs just another piece of paper signed off. In this case, it was at a private meeting of ARD director generals and programming directors held at the end of May in Berlin, to discuss how to bring their TV films more into line with current standards. Afterwards, there was a decision on "optimising production in the TV feature film/prime-time series section"; since then, it has been clear what format a German TV feature must take if it is to be broadcast on GermanyŐs first channel in the prime evening slot. It has to be "appealing", "thrilling and exciting", a "romantic comedy", above all, however, plain and simple.

The meeting decided that prime-time should be all about being "uncomplicated", "simple" and "clear". But what if life is more complicated than as described in the ARD document? Then life shouldnŐt be surprised if it no longer appears in an ARD TV film. After all, everything that isnŐt allowed has been set down on paper. So-called "token films" are strictly forbidden, the ones "the great prime-time audience" doesnŐt want to watch in large enough numbers, perhaps because - and this isnŐt allowed either Đ they contain hidden "didactic" messages or even "profundity", "intentional or accidental". The decisive factor is the "range targets" of "20 Đ 25% market share" which can be achieved by "strict monitoring and enforcement of the guidelinesÉ"

So it seems that the ARD has finally discovered that it is, in fact, a sweet factory: a business that is in strong competition with other confectionery manufacturers and, as such, has to set down in the strictest of terms exactly what a public standard jelly baby has to look like: colourful, uncomplicated, sticky. If someone doesnŐt toe the line, then they neednŐt ever go up to the directorsŐ offices again, where JŸrgen Kellermeier, TV drama co-ordinator for NDR, makes decisions on behalf of ARD about what it and its audiences like.

There were one or two reactions to this optimisation paper. It started with the Protestant Press Office criticising a sit-com with Juhnke and Wussow ("utter nonsense"). This was a sit-com that was broadcast shortly after the Berlin Conference and, oddly enough, came from NDRŐs TV film chief, who is Đ when sheŐs not writing scripts Đ one of four members of the ARD Commission that came up with this astonishing document, but also who decides which films should be broadcast in the prime slot. The ones that have been optimised, then, as if theyŐd been written by Doris J Heinze.

Shortly afterwards, there was grumbling amongst the old-school critics when it came out that a film directed by Norbert Kckelmann about young right extremists had had its original slot at 8:15pm on 25th July postponed until 11pm in October by the aforementioned Commission. Presumably, the subject matter was only of interest to interior ministers and not TV producers. Eventually it came out in a round about sort of way that the German Theatrical PublishersŐ Association had begun stirring up trouble because the sentence about the token productions had, according to the head of their media commission, "left a very bad taste in our mouths". Apart from all this, the rest of the country was yawning Đ who wants to have boring serious discussions about the ARDŐs TV films?

That used to be different, too. There were times where the audience and the critics used to argue about Eberhard FechnerŐs Tadellšser and the Wolf, about the prophetic Millionenspiel by Wolfgang Menge or about Edgar ReitzŐs Heimat Đ that TV history in the making, that epic about a youth spent in the HunsrŸck, later continued by the author in Die Zweite Heimat. Despite great success abroad, it was eyed with disdain by some programming directors who, in panel discussions, suddenly started publicly bemoaning the loss of every single viewer. But speaking of Reitz, wasnŐt there a Heimat 2000 project? One where the director, with his central figures, Clarissa maybe, or Hermann or SchŸsschen, wanted to risk taking another long look at the changes in his home after the countryŐs reunification? But how does an idea like that fit into the guidelines of the new, dynamic ARD which has long been trying to persuade its viewers into being bored by episodes of Tatort where there is no dead body within the first five minutes?

So, a phone call to Edgar Reitz and it is immediately apparent that he doesnŐt like talking about his plans. He really wanted to see it through, he said, and that he had already spent the last five years fighting for it, and that for GodŐs sake, he wanted to avoid any bad language that might ruin the whole thing. If you can sympathise with his worries, then you just have to look elsewhere for comments.

And then you will soon discover how unbelievably complicated it has become to get a demanding, multi-episode TV feature made within the public service broadcasting system. If you want to cut a long story short, the thing with Reitz was like this: First of all, the material was offered to the WDR, who didnŐt want it because of the disappointing figures for the second series. Then the SWR were contacted, and there followed four years of wrangling over the script, on which at some point even Thomas BrŸssig worked, the author who had already successfully written his own GDR and Wende experiences (Heroes like us). Of course there was a lot of trouble, also because Reitz, as an auteur, is himself more complicated than the optimisation paper can handle, but eventually an agreement was reached. ARD had committed DM 6m out of its main programmes budget, which meant that the finance for the six episodes was almost secure (including the contribution from the SWR as well as pledges from the BBC, RAI, Weltvertrieb). The only thing missing was the DM 1m from the Bavarian Film Council, but nothing came of that in the end because someone from the BR read the script and, as the saying goes, "got bored reading it". This, apparently, enraged ARD programming director GŸnter Struve and suddenly the six ARD millions had gone, too.

Afterwards, because Reitz himself put up resistance, the project ran into the bureaucracy of the public service sweet factory and its federalist structure, which could confound even the most uncomplicated of authors. The last thing to come was a real contact, someone the authors could rely on. ReitzŐs and BrŸssigŐs scripts were then sent to every director of programming, all of whom were to give their opinion on it, with the predictable result that each said something different about it. If one broadcaster thought Episode 4 was great, then the next one would find Episode 4 completely unbearable. So the whole thing looked like it was on the brink of failure because the programming directors of the nationŐs TV channels disagreed with the authors on whether the main characters from the east were too negatively drawn, whether the main character (a composer, i.e. an intellectual) was really prime-time material and whether it wouldnŐt be better to make him an organic wine-grower instead.

Then a final attempt was made after a forced link-up between the SWR and MDR. According to rumour, a detailed nine-page document issued by both broadcasters will be used to help ÔoptimiseŐ ReitzŐs and BrŸssigŐs scripts. Naturally, what else? Should a further compromise solution arise from this, which is not at all certain, then the new scripts will have to be judged by all of the ARD, as represented by those four single-minded female directorsÉ

If, in the meantime, Reitz might have been annoyed by all this, he certainly wouldnŐt let this show to a stranger. Other contacts are less reserved; they even call it a scandal, the way the ARD runs rings around world-famous writers. Perhaps the greater scandal, however, is that in doing so, it is going against the rule of the law. The ARD is not a sweet factory; itŐs not even a commercial business whose success might be measured in terms of profit, market share and the demand of the widest audience. Stuve and Kellermeier might be notorious for being enthusiastic about themselves and their institution when, yet again, they have succeeded with (without reflecting badly on the previously quite high-brow image of ARD) The best of the Musikantenstadl and ARD-Lachparade; managing to knock the competition into place. But their purpose isnŐt to make business.

Their purpose is set down in the regulations covering broadcasting and in international treaties and is cited by the constitutional court, as and when required, as a justification for the charging of licence fees and for their favourable tax conditions as compared to commercial broadcasters. These rulings state that the activities of the broadcaster "are not commercial" and that the public broadcasters have "a range of programmes on offer, which is independent of viewing figures and advertising income and which meets constitutional requirements governing representational and proportional variety."

In short, this means that itŐs not just a matter of KellermeierŐs and StruveŐs opinions and tastes as to whether TV drama is suitable for broadcast or not. Maybe the judges should watch a bit more television.


Translated into English by Shona Spence. The original text of this article was published in German in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on 5 August 2000 and can be accessed on the Internet at

Letters to the Editor of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 14th August 2000

Heimat 2000 Đ a view of GermanyŐs awakening

ARDŐs embarrassing behaviour towards film makers: The Saccharine Offensive, SZ article of 5th August


n his article, Herbert Riehl-Heyse expresses his views on both the basic demands of public service broadcasters and on the Heimat 2000 project which, like the two previous Heimat series, is to be produced in Rhineland-Palatinate. In a professional capacity as State Secretary and Director of the Mainz Minister-PresidentŐs Office, these views interest me.

Riehl-Heyse is quite right to say that too ÔprofessionalŐ a concentration on quotas can endanger the public service broadcastersŐ position, which is all too often inadequately defined both legally and politically under the umbrella heading ÔBrusselsŐ. Commercial broadcastersŐ lack of squeamishness and the ever-increasing misgivings of the cultural elite are cited in support of this. ARD, in wishing to see its third channel schedule broadcast and viewed on a nation-wide basis, should see to it that it has adequate programming to at least try to meet original standards of education level and cultural mindset.

On the whole, this is still the reason why tuning into the third channel can provide a sense of satisfaction; all of which succeeds in supporting the public service broadcastersŐ cause in a merciless global competitive marketplace (the loss of the football rights serving as a shocking example).

Certainly, ARD and ZDF are often faced with the same challenging dilemmas of whether to pander to the changing tastes of their audiences, necessary to a degree, or to satisfy high-brow cultural tastes, which can never be mainstream. On one hand, it should be noted that in ARDŐs case, the fight against the giants is carried out behind closed doors, despite the above-mentioned article, whereas at ZDF it is often done, probably inadequately and often bemoaned, by committee, which reacts noticeably to questions such as those put by Riehl-Heyse. In addition, ZDF has carried out exemplary work with Hans Janke in TV drama for the public service broadcasting ÔbrandŐ.

A propos Heimat 2000: I know that it is not my place as a representative of politics or of a government to meddle in the workings of the programme makers, however, as committee members we are allowed to do this to a degree. Like Edgar Reitz, I realise it is dangerous to wake a sleeping giant. However, it must be said that it would not only be a crying shame, but also irresponsible if ReitzŐs preparations for Heimat 2000 were to be thrown out and ARD couldnŐt come to a means of bringing the series into being. The final instalment in this unique series of films takes as its reference points the present, or the recent past, and looks towards the reunified and perhaps reawakening Germany.

I have no doubt whatsoever that Reitz will produce something which will be public service broadcasting in its truest sense and which will attract, if not exactly a furore, then certainly peopleŐs attention and provoke discussion. ThatŐs what we really need! But this Ôpass the parcelŐ within the ARD and the continual demands for certification are not merely annoying but unworthy of discussion. From meetings I have learned that Peter Voss, Director of Programming for SWR is trying to find a solution. Certainly it is my wish that our Region, Rhineland-Palatinate, benefits from this project, too Đ culturally and in terms of a positive critique of contemporary history.


The document criticised by Herbert Riehl-Heyse is an internal working paper by the ARD TV Drama Programming Team, which the Heads of Drama Production had used to communicate the structure of internal discussions.

Decisions on TV drama projects and the choice of writers are taken by individual branches and their Directors, not by the TV Drama Programming Team. Decisions on broadcast slots are taken by the group of Directors and are based on recommendations from the Drama Programming Team, not, as Riehl-Heyse claimed, by the "four members of the ARD Commission".

A range target of 20 Đ 25% audience market share is in place for the ARDŐs Sunday evening crime series (Tatort and others) only, not, however, for the TV features on Wednesday evenings or at other times.

The working paper, which Riehl-Heyse shortened and presented in a distorted manner, contains a description of various goals and criteria for TV drama on ARD in the main evening slots. A part of this is the question of how costly TV features can attract as many viewers as possible in the evenings.

Riehl-HeyseŐs conclusion that this is a scandal or even a contravention "against the rule of the law" is absurd and erroneous, in my view as Deputy Director General of the ARD. Public service television is neither obliged by "the rule of the law" nor by other regulations to ignore completely or even be hostile towards its audience. Neither is it to flee from the competition. In charging everyone a licence fee, the organisation has a duty to have something to offer as many people as possible.

The Reitz project cited by Riehl-Heyse, Heimat 2000, has more evidence in its support, in that the ARD is in no way limiting itself to a light-weight, one-dimensional and entertaining piece in its efforts to get an interesting programme (nor is it doing so in the TeamŐs working paper). Difficult, serious material as well as experimental and controversial projects remain part of our main schedule (in contrast to other broadcasters). This was true in the past and will continue in the future.

The ARD will also try within the TV drama section to offer its viewers a sophisticated and varied schedule. Claims that, in doing so, it is not respecting the wishes and interests of its audience, will not be followed up by us, however. It is incomprehensible to us that it should be wrong for the ARD and its directors to continually proof-read and discuss scripts (even those submitted by Reitz).

The fact that this process can be long-winded and complicated in costly ARD-financed collaborative projects within an organisation like the ARD with its 10 institutions is part of the price which has to be paid for the many privileges and advantages of a federal system. Comments by the ARD directors on the Heimat 2000 scripts were, not as Riehl-Heyse reports, unanimous on all the main points.


Herbert Riehl-HeyseŐs conscience-stirring article was long overdue. As a Cultural Minster for Rhineland-Palatinate I consider it intolerable how public service broadcasting panders to the lowest levels of taste of an apparent majority. Increasingly, I miss the recognition of great, internationally renowned artistsŐ contributions to show business and the respect for their contributions to our nationŐs culture. This behaviour towards Edgar Reitz, whose scripts appear to be being ironed out by all the TV directors, is a shocking example of this. Unfortunately, not the only one.


Translated into English by Shona Spence. The original text of this article was published in German in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on 14 August 2000 and can be accessed on the Internet at