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ZDF Studios

Programming Profile

ZDF Studios CEO Schäfer on market trends, changing demand, fresh content


Dr Markus Schäfer, appointed President and CEO of Germany’s ZDF Studios earlier this year, shares his thoughts on how the global content market is changing and the impact of streaming, and offers a glimpse of the company’s content pipeline via C21’s Digital Screenings.


How is international demand for the kind of content represented in your sales catalogue changing?
ZDF Studios is proud of its long-standing relationships with national and international partners, often shaped around high-volume output deals in combination with sales of our flagship programmes, such as international coproductions from our own or the group’s development slate. However, the rights our partners require are changing. With the shift of users from linear to non-linear consumption, digital rights play a bigger role than ever.


Dr Markus Schäfer, ZDF Studios

On the one hand, the market is diversifying, with numerous new players coming to the market. On the other hand, we are experiencing an enormous concentration process, with big international media groups consolidating their acquisition strategies over all platforms. We realise that all players try to find their niches and their own signature style, some becoming more local, others more global, so it becomes more challenging to satisfy all customers at the same time.


We see that it is getting more competitive out there and that production budgets are rising. Getting involved in top-quality is our top priority, and we don’t compromise. We invest in captivating stories with international appeal, which often are brand- or book-based. This is, however, sometimes not enough. In our children’s catalogue, for example, we therefore try to offer each of our target group enriching stories that are not only entertaining but also give guidance in emotional and personal development.


What does your offer reflect about ZDF Studios’ international content strategy?
Our goal is to promote European content globally and, at its core, German content from our network headed by broadcaster ZDF. We aim to have a broad genre and content mix with our network’s formats at its core. Thus we can offer our partners the reliable performance of our long-running brands and blend them with innovative and exciting new international formats.


Agatha Christie’s Hjerson

We are particularly known for carrying high-value coproductions in our three genres – drama, unscripted and junior – a lot of them from European countries, but with a growing share of shows from all over the world, representing a diverse and intriguing content mix.


Despite all the changes in the market, we see our formula confirmed again and again. Free and pay TV broadcasters and streamers all over the world value our high-quality programming output. Our programmes have a global perspective and we work with international production companies, authors, producers, directors, casts and experts.


How has the global market changed since lockdown, particularly in the regions where ZDF Studios sells the most?
Most notably, there is a lot more content out there than there was a couple of years ago. The pandemic really put the transformation of our industry from predominantly linear to non-linear into hyper-drive, resulting in numerous launches of new VoD services everywhere and a growing demand for original programming.


White Night
White Night

This is great for producers but also puts a lot of strain on distribution companies that don’t have a strong and reliable inflow of high-quality content. Luckily, ZDF Studios has a strong backbone of not only a competitive catalogue with tens of thousands of hours but also a diverse group of highly creative production companies. This allows us to facilitate working synergies between the distribution business and the production business.


As we all know, the pandemic delayed productions all over the world. At the same time, there was an increased demand for finished programmes. With our very large catalogue and massive investments in new programmes we had happened to make in the years prior to the pandemic, we were there to help our clients quench this thirst for content.


In 2022, we realise things are slowly coming back to the pre-pandemic state. Most of the delayed programmes are being delivered now, and new ambitious projects are coming up across the globe.



With the accelerated roll-out of new streaming services such as Disney+, Paramount+ and HBO Max, there are new opportunities for the production of ‘originals’ – or the sale of exclusive first windows – or non-exclusive second windows based on versions available in other languages.


What impact has the recent streaming boom had on the supply of and demand for content?
There is a lot of demand for content right now, including original programming, coproductions, and finished shows. At the same time, many new productions are hitting the market. This is leading to a quite crowded market for new shows, and we are hitting peak TV.


On one hand, we successfully coproduce with streamers, including some of our big highlights in our drama, junior and unscripted genres. Among these are Surviving Summer, The Lost Pirate Kingdom and World War II – Road to Victory with Netflix and Going Circular and War Gamers with Curiosity. On the other hand – apart from the established SVoD platforms – we see an enormous rise of AVoD-focused services, some of which also have become regular clients for volume deals.


Between Two Worlds
Between Two Worlds

The demand for localised content has risen. Managing the rights to our brands – hand in hand with the rights to our language versions – has been an integral part of our daily business activity for many years. We are continuously reinvesting in dubs to our brands, thus stand committed to our shows beyond our initial investments. By reinvesting, we support the marketability of our brands and extend their shelf life. We leverage the overall number of distributable content and are able to generate sustainable revenue streams. In our children’s catalogue, we have 20,000 episodes available in 25 languages, all ready to air, and this number increases every day.


However, I feel that the demand for fresh content is at its peak or will reach it soon. Thus, I think we will see some form of consolidation in the near future, levelling the market out to a more sustainable equilibrium. Until then, we will continue to ride the wave like everyone else is right now.


What kind of content is ZDF Studios now looking to invest in to better serve the global market?
That really depends on each genre. In drama, we are opportunity-driven and try to service our clients, so there is no specific kind of content we are looking for at the moment. Our industry is very much trend-driven, and the production and trend cycles do not always match. As a result, even though some types of shows are all over the trades, we tend to look into the future to anticipate future trends. We aim to have the right type of content available when something becomes trendy again, so it’s really about the right portfolio and genre mix.


The Muscleteers
The Muscleteers

In the factual field, there are some eternal topics such as Ancient Egypt, Biblical archaeology, the Middle Ages, dinosaurs and palaeontology, space, the two World Wars, spies, Earth history and Earth science – and, of course, blue-chip wildlife from all continents, which is always welcome.


However, innovative and fresh storytelling, new and surprising perspectives, and new finds, theories or untold aspects of the stories are also very important for us. For example, the story of the Battle of the Atlantic has been told numerous times, but World Media Rights’ War Gamers tells it from the perspective of the WREN female war gaming unit, which played a major role in the outcome of this important chapter of the Second World War.


Environmental topics are more important than ever in the kids’ genre. As such, we will be producing the live-action series Alea Aquarius, based on the successful book series by Tanya Stewner. The show will mix ravishing natural history footage with live-action drama, making the world look like something that is well worth protecting. We want our audience to genuinely understand what we risk losing. And we will suggest how we can prevent that from happening. We are part of the environment – both the problem and the solution.



ZDF Studios was at several events over the summer. How important are real-life industry events?
Let’s face it, our industry is a people’s business and real-life industry events are invaluable. We have done an excellent job maintaining and even strengthening our relationships during the pandemic using all technical means.


However, building up new business just via a screen has its limits. Meeting new and existing partners in person is the backbone of what we are doing. We are selling and producing products worth millions of euros. Being able to have an in-person conversation with a partner or client you will potentially work with for a long time can’t always be substituted by a virtual meeting.


Of course, video calls are here to stay, such as when it comes to concrete negotiation of projects within well-established partnerships. But to make new contacts, to get an idea how the market is evolving, which new ideas are swirling around, which new production companies, broadcasters or streamers are emerging – and let’s not to forget the business gossip – nothing can replace real-life events.


Zoom - The White Dolphin
Zoom – The White Dolphin

What recent programme sales or investments has ZDF Studios made?
Most recently, we launched Boundless, a high-concept period drama from Spain about the treacherous journey of Magellan and the tragedy of his expedition around the word. It is a production of Mono Films in coproduction with Fulwell 73 Productions, RTVE and Prime Video, with a budget of €25m (US$25.6m).


It is directed by Simon West, who is known for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and as the producer of Oscar nominee Black Hawk Down, so it’s a huge show for us and we are extremely proud to bring it to the market.


We are also currently working on the fourth season of The Crimson Rivers and the third of Sloborn, both coproductions with ZDF and international broadcasters.


We speak your language!
We speak your language!

From our junior department comes live-action series Theodosia, a coproduction between Cottonwood Media, ZDF, ZDF Studios, HBO Max in the US and Globo in Brazil. We are delighted by how fantastic the production turned out to be. The book-based series follows Theo, a girl obsessed with Egyptian culture, who has magical powers to transform ancient curses into magical adventures.


Distributed by ZDF Studios and Federation Kids & Family, the show has been already picked up by clients such as the BBC, France Télévisions, Salto, OSN, NPO, SVT, DR and Biggs, while further deals are currently in negotiation with other partners.


Also brand new is our animated series Pettson & Findus, which tells captivating stories of old, inventive farmer Pettson and his loyal but impudent cat Findus. It is a modern classic, based on Swedish books by Sven Nordqvist, and we get into new episodes with a modern look, while remain true to the heartwarming original stories.


Great Inventions: Beer
Great Inventions: Beer

In addition, we are very much looking forward to launching the new CGI animated version of classic property Grisù (52×11’) at the end of the year, coproduced with Toon2Tango, MondoTV and ZDF.


One of our bestsellers from the children’s catalogue is Hoodie, a modern superhero tale featuring parkour and set in an urban environment. So far, we have sold it to Amazon, Rai, Canal+, RTBF, TVC, RTP, RTL and many others.


Finally, our unscripted sales team has recently sold numerous large documentary packages to such buyers as A&E Italy (including Ancient Egypt), Viasat (including Ancient Engineering 2) and Polsat (including Beyond the Myth – the SS Unveiled).

More programming profiles

  • 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.

  • 14-10-2020

    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.

  • 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.”