On Tuesday, the US hit TV series “Desperate Housewives” hits the airwaves in Germany. It’s the latest in American imports that German commercial networks, desperately looking for ratings and cash, hope will save the day.
These women are desperate; German TV is reaching that point
Everything's perfect on Wisteria Lane. The lawns are manicured and surrounded by white picket fences. The SUVs are tucked safely in their garages; the swimming pools are always sparkling.
But behind the immaculate facades, life in this suburban idyll turns out to be, in part, a waking nightmare. One woman gives up her high-powered career to raise children and bake cakes, and bitterly regrets it. Her ex-model neighbor can't endure the excruciating daytime boredom and begins a steamy affair with the gardener. Another stay-at-home mom steers her family onto the rocks with her Martha Stewart-style perfectionism.
It's all in a day, or episode, of "Desperate Housewives," the surprise hit series for the American network ABC that draws in 25 million viewers every Sunday night. The show, both a critical and commercial success in the US, has given long-struggling ABC a new lease on life.
Germany's commercial ProSieben network wants a repeat of that story, badly.
It has imported the series and dubbed it into German in record time. It hopes -- not quite desperately, but getting there -- that "Housewives" will pull the station out of the ratings doldrums and convince advertisers who have slashed their TV budgets over the past few years to come back to the fold.
Quality "Made in USA "
The series, which is being heavily promoted on billboards, in print and other media, is one more example of an American renaissance of sorts on the German TV landscape over the last few years. In the fifties, sixties and seventies, television in Germany was crowded with American imports.
That fell off in the latter part of the 80s and 90s when German television production started coming into its own. Professional standards in Germany increased, better scripts were written, and a home-grown TV culture began to take root. American series were actually frowned upon in some quarters.
But that has changed. More recently, as German television viewers have become more sophisticated and ratings for German productions have dropped off, network heads are again looking back across the Atlantic for a knight in shining armor. While they are surely happy to satisfy Germans' desire for more quality TV, their primary goal is to save their own skins as well.
"Their survival depends on a recovery in the television market, even in the overall German consumer market," said Lutz Erbring, a media studies professor at Berlin's Free University.
The German TV landscape is divided into two major camps, the commercial stations, such as ProSieben, and the public broadcasters. The latter group, which in Germany includes two main national broadcasters along with regional stations, is financed by a fee that everyone owning a television or radio is obligated to pay. The commercial stations get their revenue from advertising.
That revenue stream, however, has been drying up. Between 2000 and 2003, the advertising market in Germany lost 3.4 billion euros ($4.4 billion). Once powerful commercial stations like RTL have watched ratings in the all-important 14- to 49-year-old group shrink from 21.2 percent to 16.8 percent over a decade.
All of the commercial stations are looking for a way to lift these kinds of numbers, and the liferaft appears to be quality US programming, instead of home-grown formats. "Housewives" is meant to be the successor to the wildly successful run of "Sex and the City" in Germany, which spawned viewing parties in cities across the country and was able to convince wary advertisers to again take a chance on TV.
Other shows such as "Six Feet Under" and "Nip/Tuck" have been brought over in the hopes that they'd generate the same kind of excitement and revenue. Last week, the castaways on "Lost" also made their German debut.
"American TV culture itself has gone through an immensely interesting period," said Jo Gröbel, director of the European Institute for the Media. "There is a subtlety that you hardly ever see with German production."
Germans behind the game
Indeed, some complain that German networks have to depend on foreign imports because their own domestic productions are weak, even though much of what actually airs on German screens are still copies of American or British shows. While some work, many don't.
"Tatort" on German public television
There has been much hand-wringing in the press -- some say overblown -- about the decline of quality in German television. Critics argue executives are just playing it safe, afraid to take any kind of creative chance for fear of scaring off viewers. They say that has lead to dull, predictable programming.
Others point to several recent embarrassing reality show productions when discussing German television's slide. One Big Brother-like show called "The Castle" had a group of people living in medieval conditions. Its lowest point -- among many low ones -- was likely when one man urinated in another contestant's bathwater while she was disrobing in the next room.
Such gimmicks have led one leading German TV personality, comedian Harald Schmidt (photo), to label the output of commercial stations "TV for the underclasses."
In search of…
German networks are constantly on searching for scriptwriters who can write to the level of the best TV the US has to offer, although so far, most agree that only a very few shows, such as the detective series "Tatort" or the lawyer drama "Edel und Starck," can hold their own with quality American programming. According to Jo Gröbel, the reason behind this is often, simply enough, money.
"All these [US] series are immensely expensive productions. A German TV producer would never reach the cost-benefit relation that those in the US can," he said.
Sex and the City cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall (l-r), photo
The domestic market in the US is nearly four times larger than Germany's, and when potential global export revenue is taken into the equation, it is not difficult to see why American network executives are willing to lay out the kind of money they do for the expensive Manhattan settings of "Sex and the City" or the tropical island backdrop of "Lost."
As far as talent goes, Germany is not exactly lacking when it comes to television producers, although its history is shorter. It only got started with serious production some 20 years ago, whereas the Americans have been at it for almost three times that long. And according to Gröbel, statistically speaking, the US, with its larger population, has a larger pool of potential television production genius to pull from.
"But also the long tradition of supporting and honing this talent doesn't exist in Germany," he added. "Maybe the obsession with the craft, the hunger, is more developed in the US."