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ZDF Studios

Programming Profile

ZDFE’s playlist for a new normal


Fred Burcksen of ZDF Enterprises, the commercial arm of German public broadcaster ZDF, discusses his new C21 Digital Screenings playlist and explores how the pandemic has impacted viewing trends.


ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE)’s playlist arrives as broadcasters still grapple with the fall-out from delayed productions. Representing each of its three genres, drama, unscripted and kids, the titles have all been selected for the virtual Mipcom, currently running online, and offer variety for buyers with gaps still to fill.


Despite the different mix of content, a common thread runs through all of ZDFE’s programming. “We’re looking for good stories that are contemporary,” says Fred Burcksen, who has been president and CEO of ZDFE since 2018 and is responsible for maintaining the distributor’s strategy during these unprecedented times.


For Burcksen, ZDFE’s programmes serve the viewer in different ways. “In some cases, they help us escape from reality, and sometimes we do confront reality. In the end, it’s all about telling good stories, being original and keeping up with the pace and developments in the market,” says Burcksen, pointing to ZDFE’s first playlist choice, Top Dog (8×45’), from the acclaimed Swedish producers of Bron.


Fred Burcksen, ZDF Enterprises

Shortlisted for Canneseries 2020, the thriller, produced by Filmlance International Production in coproduction with TV4/C More and ZDFE, focuses on the clash between a Stockholm business attorney and an ex-con. The duo’s paths cross on their respective missions, which forms the beginning of an unorthodox collaboration and a highly unusual friendship.


“The interesting element is that two people that you wouldn’t expect to connect need to connect to solve a kidnapping case. It’s high-quality serialised, classical Scandinavian crime,” says Burcksen, who believes despite the pandemic shifting audiences towards lighter content, “the demand for original good serialised drama is still there.”


Burcksen has also seen a recent trend for audiences favouring simplicity over long, complicated dramas. “There’s a tendency towards more feel-good programming, not too tough, not too complicated, which is what always happens in a crisis,” he says.


He also notes that procedural drama is having a resurgence. “Up until a year ago, everything that was being produced was serialised; there’s now a higher demand for procedural series, where each episode tells one story,” he says. “People may be worried about their future, society or staying healthy; it’s a natural reflex that they’d like to see a programme where they feel comfortable with a happy ending.”


ZDFE’s next playlist title comes from their children’s catalogue. Season two of Heirs of the Night (26×26’) is a coming-of-age fantasy drama. Set in 1889, it follows the children of the five remaining European vampire clans as they join forces to stop Dracula’s plans to destroy them all. Produced by Lemming Film, Hamster Film, Maze Pictures, Maipo Film and ZDFE, the second season follows the heirs as they head to a new destination for the next year of vampire school.


Top Dog
Top Dog

For Burcksen, the series taps into the key coming-of-age themes, which are important for the 8-14 age group it is aimed at. “At this stage, it’s definitely something that’s being looked for, the acceptance of being different, whether it’s race or sexual preference,” he says. “If you make programming for kids, the question of identity has always been key.”


Heirs of the Night is a show that continues the trend of German-language titles travelling globally. “We’ve seen with the rise of the SVoD platforms that there’s been a high acceptance for local content, no matter what language. In some countries they might be dubbed, but in most they’re being subtitled. So that is a very positive effect from the disruption in the market,” says Burcksen.


Although at least 50% of ZDFE’s catalogue is not in the German language, “we’re producing all over the world. It’s a good combination that we offer, from local-language series and English titles,” says Burcksen, pointing to ZDFE’s final playlist choice taken from its unscripted roster.


Heirs of the Night
Heirs of the Night

Great Inventions (35×50’) is an engineering and history series produced by subsidiary Off the Fence, doc.station, World Media Rights and k22film for ZDFE. It takes a look at the brilliant and not so brilliant great inventions of our time. “The series celebrates the million ways that great inventions have transformed our world, and have created our society,” says Burcksen. “It’s good popular science.”


For Burcksen, it’s not only the growing number of global platforms that have driven change, but also new local players too. “The most remarkable development is the need to be original, creating your own positioning has increased dramatically. There’s a great demand for stories and that’s a very positive thing,” he says. “For the more traditional linear networks and pay TV networks, the need to identify themselves with original content has dramatically increased, and it’s been an enormous push for the market,” he adds.


Burcksen is quick to point out one impact of these changes: “Producing original content is expensive, which is why we’re seeing so many coproductions. We’ve always invested globally in good content and good storytelling, but the speed has increased. You need to be onboard earlier than you were 10 years ago, and you basically need a good idea and confidence in the production companies.”


Great Inventions
Great Inventions

But with that comes a potential downside, he adds. “The risk is higher when you step into a project. You trust the talent, you’re willing to let the talent do their job, but you never know what the outcome might be. But so far, we’ve been really lucky with our choices,” he says.


One of those good bets is Cash or Trash, a Warner Bros production that has seen over 1,000 episodes air. The daily one-hour show uncovers the price of the public’s treasures and hidden heirlooms. In each episode, owners become sellers looking to get the highest price for their items from a panel of dealers. The audience guesses along if the amateur sellers will go home with cash or if their treasure will turn out to be trash.


Burcksen has been surprised by the success of the show, which has been adapted in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Czechia and the UK. “It’s very difficult to explain the success of a series,” he says. “It’s probably down to the ordinary people and the surprise. They come in with stuff they think has no value at all and then it turns out to be something very valuable,” he says.


ZDFE will have to wait longer than expected to see if some of its newest titles will have the same international success, as many of its drama productions have been delayed by the pandemic. “We’re producing a drama series with Fuji TV in Japan called The Window. It’s being shot internationally in London, Belgium and southern Europe, but we had to interrupt filming after we shot 70% of the 10 episodes. We’ve just finished the final 30%, so we’re finally in post-production,” says Burcksen.


Another rescheduled project is The Swarm, which ZDFE is producing with Emmy winner Frank Doelger (Game of Thrones). “It’s an high-end international coproduction financed by five or six countries that we wanted to shoot this fall in South Africa. And now we need to find a different time slot, maybe even a different location,” says Burcksen.


Despite the setbacks Burcksen is philosophical about the impact of the pandemic. “Our industry was already disrupted – the business models, the demand, the way we produce, the way we watch television or content. Covid-19 has just speeded up the process. We’re always looking at opportunities rather than catastrophes, so we embrace the opportunities that come out of digitisation and Covid-19,” he says.


For Burcksen, navigating the new normal is business as usual. “The world will never be as it was before. We have found new ways to talk to our clients more often, over the phone rather than at markets. The only thing that we can do is try to be clever and inventive. We still wake up every day looking for the next big story that we’re going to tell. That’s basically the essence of our industry. The way we’re doing business is definitely changing, and that’s a positive.”

More programming profiles

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    How is international demand for the kind of content represented in your sales catalogue changing?
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  • 15-06-2021

    Fred Burcksen, president and CEO of ZDF Enterprises, discusses the company’s playlist for C21 Digital Screenings, which spans kids, drama and factual programming.


    ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) may have the largest collection of German-language programmes in the world, but it is nevertheless always on the look-out for hits in other languages, particularly non-English-language dramas.


    The Mainz-based firm, the commercial arm of German public broadcaster ZDF, has already had a big hand in drawing international audiences to non-English-language scripted series by being an early adopter of Scandinavian crime drama. “We were the first to market Nordic noir internationally and paved the way for its success and countless remakes in other countries,” says Fred Burcksen, ZDFE’s president and CEO.


    Now considered as one of the chief architects of the Nordic noir boom, ZDFE distributed international ratings hits such as Danish police procedural Forbrydelsen (The Killing), acquired by broadcasters and platforms in more than 120 countries, including by the UK’s BBC, and Danish-Swedish crime thriller Broen (The Bridge), which was remade by US network FX and starred Diane Kruger.

  • 11-05-2020

    ZDF Enterprises of Germany has prepared a broad slate for its C21 Digital Screenings. Here, President and CEO Fred Burcksen takes us through the playlist.


    Despite the stormy seas the industry has been navigating for the past two months, and the likelihood that it will continue to do so throughout the summer, Germany’s ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) has been conducting business as usual and offers a wide range of content to plug gaps in programming brought about by the pandemic.


    At the helm of ZDFE, the commercial arm of German public broadcaster ZDF, is President and CEO Fred Burcksen, who has been working to adapt the distributor’s strategy to the turbulent times and believes it’s within the company’s nature to adapt to new scenarios.


    “We are all sitting in the same boat right now,” Burcksen says. “Productions had to be stopped and we are anxiously waiting to find out when and under what conditions they can resume. We adapt to the situation and find creative solutions and it’s in our DNA to embrace change. At present we are focusing on chances rather than on the negative effects resulting from the pandemic.”