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ZDF Enterprises

Programming Profile

ZDFE offers fresh content in turbulent times

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.”


Fred Burcksen, ZDF Enterprises

This optimistic approach means the German distributor has not had to make any radical changes to its 2020 programming slate, but rather resorts to digital forms of conducting business during the pandemic, like many company around the world.


The reason behind this, Burcksen explains, is the fact that he believes broadcasters are broadly ordering the same type of content as they would have ordered prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.


“The rumour is that broadcasters are now looking for more ‘happy’ programmes with real-life outside currently being tough enough, but we have not had this experience yet. Our clients are buying the same kind of programmes and since we have a large variety of drama, children’s and factual programmes, we can really cater to their needs,” says the German CEO.


However, Burcksen has noticed a change in the way buyers are acquiring content throughout the pandemic. “We do notice, however, that broadcasters now tend to buy larger packages in order to be prepared and to be able to fill their slots, should the pandemic last longer than expected.”


ZDFE has therefore compiled a slate built up of a combination of drama, unscripted and children’s titles in order to allow broadcasters to fill both their usual programming slots as well as any gaps that have resulted from the pandemic.


“We have thousands of hours, in many different language versions, ranging from children’s animation and teenage live-action to family drama, thrillers, long-running series of all types and fantastic documentaries in science, wildlife and history as well as entertainment ready-mades and format rights,” Burcksen states.


He also notes that ZDFE has not resorted to library content any more than it would have done during a regular business year, as it still has fresh content to offer.



“We have always also offered library content; this is not new for us. For example, we have cult crime series that have been aired for decades and are still being produced and aired today, and ZDF, our shareholder, has a library that goes back to 1963. But before we have to go back this far, we have thousands of more recent hours for our clients to enjoy that will last them hopefully much longer than the pandemic will,” he says.


Headlining ZDFE’s slate is the drama series Freud, which Burcksen confesses to be his favourite title the company has on offer.


“Freud tells the story of the young psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, in Vienna in 1886, just as his revolutionary theories are being met with strong opposition from colleagues and wider Austrian society. He is depicted as a young man instead of playing into the typical expectations of Freud as an older, bent man with a grey goatee and nickel glasses. It’s an absorbing mystery series,” says Burcksen.


The 8×45’ series is a coproduction of Satel Film and Bavaria Fiction, originally produced for Netflix and Austria’s ORF, and will broadcast on ZDF this summer.


Alongside Freud, ZDFE’s drama offering has a high representation of foreign-language titles, such as the Italian series Standing Tall.



The series tells the story of a father’s investigation into his son’s alleged suicide, and how the truth behind the death may not be what it seems. Standing Tall was produced by Publispei for Italian pubcaster Rai, and is being sold by ZDFE in both 4×100’ or 8×50’ formats.


The coming-of-age drama Sløborn also features on the slate, and has become an unknowingly topical series. Created by the showrunner of Netflix’s Dogs of Berlin, the series tells the story of a group of islanders confronted with a fatal virus. Perhaps the storyline rings some bells?


The post-apocalyptic disaster thriller raises the question of what happens to modern society when the thin veil of civilisation collapses. Sløborn was coproduced by Syrreal Entertainment in coproduction with Tobis Film, Nordisk Film, ZDF and ZDF Enterprises, and is available as a 4×90′ or 8×45′ season.


Capping off the drama slate is the RTE original series The South Westerlies, which follows Orla Brady (Mistresses) on the verge of a major promotion at a large Norwegian energy firm, only to find there is one last task she must complete to secure her new position. The 6×52’ series is produced by Deadpan Pictures for RTÉ in Ireland alongside Acorn Media Enterprises and TV2 Norway.


Burcksen admits that ZDFE has shifted its focus overseas over recent years, though points out that the company has long been working with partners beyond Germany’s borders.


“We have a long history of working with international partners, in production, as coproduction partners or as distribution mandates. In today’s world, it does not make any sense to work in any other way. As a company that works with partners around the globe, we need programming that is authentic and that suits their needs,” he says.


Great Inventions
Great Inventions

“Our German productions are also much more aimed at international marketability than 10 or 20 years ago and have, without a doubt, gained an excellent reputation. We are very satisfied with this development.”


On the unscripted front, Burcksen is particularly fond of the new factual series Great Inventions. “My other favourite is our documentary series Great Inventions, a series spotlighting the greatest inventions of mankind. It was initiated, self-commissioned and fully-financed by ZDFE. In 35 one-hour episodes, we look at the successes and the failures, the brilliant ideas and some that are not so brilliant,” he explains.


Anthropocene: The Rise of Humans
Anthropocene: The Rise of Humans

Anthropological factual title Anthropocene: The Rise of Humans is also being sold by ZDFE. The three-part series takes a look at human beings’ thirst for innovation and technology that has turned us into the most influential lifeform on Earth, and the impact this is having on the planet itself.


Additionally, the two-part documentary Realm of the Volga shares insights on Europe’s largest river, while three-parter Forensics: The Science of Crime takes a closer look behind the scenes of spectacular criminal hunts. The former title is produced by Doclights alongside Altayfilm, while the latter is a K22 production for ZDF.


Forensics: The Science of Crime
Forensics: The Science of Crime

Children’s content also makes up a significant portion of ZDFE’s slate, with the mystical period drama Heirs of the Night as the jewel of the category. The live-action series, coproduced by Lemming Film, Hamster Film, Maze Pictures, Maipo Film and ZDFE, is set in 1898 and sees five European vampire clans attempt to unite in order to avoid extinction.


A duo of animated series also have their place on the slate, namely SLR Productions’ series Space Nova (22×26’) and WunderWerk, Fabrique d’Images and ZDF coproduction Henrietta (52×7’).



Finally, completing ZDFE’s C21 Digital Screenings offering is the series #LikeMe (13×26’), which follows the life of a popular schoolgirl whose life is upended when her mother is diagnosed with cancer, forcing the family to leave their lives behind and move elsewhere to seek treatment.


All in all, Burcksen is trying to remain grounded and conduct business as usual in order to see the pandemic through, and he believes the digital alternatives to the slew of cancelled markets have proved a viable option for the industry, which might have to rethink the place those conferences hold in future.



“These events are important for us to personally introduce our clients and business partners to our latest programme highlights, to discuss coproduction projects or new business ideas or to simply meet the many great friends we have made over the years in our industry.


“It is, of course, unfortunate that many of these events had to be cancelled and that the end is not yet in sight. Even more as we are currently also unable to travel to our clients for personal meetings. At the same time, the whole situation pushed us to more contact via video conferences and virtual screenings. Many of us feel that the classic industry events need to think about offering better options in this direction in the future as well,” he states.


The German CEO is confident the ZDFE’s offering will allow both viewers and buyers to find content to gorge on and a distraction from the troubling reality beyond our screens.