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Making German TV Better

Jane Paulick interviewed Matt Witten
February 22, 2007

German TV networks are taking their cues State-side in a bid to create better drama series. DW-WORLD.DE caught up with LA-based screenwriter Matt Witten to find out how projects like the "Writer's Room" can help.

The boys from "Alarm für Cobra 11" give good leadImage: picture-alliance / KPA

The recent Berlin Film Festival proved that German cinema is in fine fettle. But television is looking a lot less robust. A record number of new shows are tanking spectacularly -- take private station Pro 7's latest disaster, the much-hyped "Crazy about Clara." Given that viewers loved "Ally McBeal" and "Sex and the City," they should have devoured a home-grown series about a 20-something city girl juggling work and relationships. But no one was crazy about Clara at all, and this enormously expensive series was shunted off into a late-night slot after just two episodes.

But while viewers can't switch off German shows fast enough, they're more addicted than ever to US imports, with most prime-time slots filled with the likes of "Desperate Housewives," "Medical Investigation" and "ER." The networks are realizing it's time for a re-think -- and are sending for the marines.

Organized by media consultancy MediaXchange, the third "Writer's Room" recently took place in Germany. Its goal is to bring together experienced US writers to work with their local counterparts in developing ideas for drama series to be sold to local channels and the international market. Guest of honor at January's session was writer and producer Matt Witten -- whose credits include "House M.D.," "CSI: Miami" and "Law & Order." DW-WORLD.DE asked him how it went.

Matt Witten: It went well! The German writers were talented and interesting and it was very productive. We came up with some terrific ideas for shows and also I think it gave the German writers a good idea of how US TV shows run.

Did you see any German TV shows?

I saw "Alarm für Cobra 11" and "Lasko" (two series made by German production company "Action Concept," which co-organized the event). One thing I noticed was that the action sequences were fabulous, probably better than anything I've ever seen on American television. You might see that kind of action in the movies but never on television. The first episode I saw of "Cobra 11" had a 400 car pile-up! "Action Concept" manages to do these incredible things on relatively small budgets, significantly less than those of American shows.

So is US TV as good as it is often simply because of economies of scale?

CSI Miami
"CSI: Miami" shows the wayImage: CBS

Because we have more money to put into it? Yes. But we've also been making TV in the US since 1950. We have a longer history -- we've been developing our TV for 50 years, so there might be some catch-up to do for German television. But are Americans inherently better writers than Germans? No, of course not!

When you talked to the German participants in the Writer's Room, did you get the impression that they need help to create good TV?

American shows tend to be pretty fast-paced and vigorously structured, and the way we structure the action and the conflict for our main characters has been thought through in ways that are fresh for German writers, they haven't necessarily heard it described in these terms. So it gives them a new way of looking at the writing they're doing. They were also intrigued by the fact that in America we have staff writers who meet every day, and we have a head writer responsible for the consistency of the show -- "the show-runner." These concepts are new in Germany, where there is no cohesion of writing staff. Instead, episodes are written by freelancers who turn in maybe just two a year. Another thing in American TV is that directors don't have the power to change the script without talking to the writer. It makes sense that the writers are in charge because after all, they will be involved with all thirteen episodes in the series whereas a director is only involved with three or four.

Does that mean that German shows never quite rival American ones because of structures -- because Germany doesn’t have the same efficient systems in place that the US has? Should Germany focus more on this aspect of TV production?

I would agree with that. When you have a good infrastructure the writers will also get better because of it -- by being with the production for all 13 or 24 episodes, being around the other writers on set, working with the actors and the directors, getting involved with the editing. Better writing is an inevitable by-product. "Action Concept" CEO Hermann Joha for one is very keen to run all his shows more according to this model. He specifically wants to establish this kind of infrastructure and to introduce this way of working in Germany.

What Germany has right now is a lot of shows billed as the German "Sex and the City," the German "Law & Order" etc. But somehow they don’t really work. What’s missing?

Sex and the City Darsteller: (l-r) Kristin Davis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall and Cynthia Nixon
Germans loved "Sex and the City"Image: AP

For myself as a writer I feel that if you're passionate about your show it has a good chance of becoming a success. But you also need the infrastructure to carry that passion forward and make it workable for a 13 or 24 episode season, and I guess there's a possibility that some of these aspects are lacking in Germany.

TV is essentially escapist, and Germany still has a fascination with the US. Might German TV writers be fighting a losing battle, because their audiences are actually quite happy not to have home-grown shows?

My guess is that Germans would respond really well to a terrific home-grown show. It's only logical. I used to live in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York and I would always be intrigued by any novel set there. I'm Jewish, so I always enjoy Jewish novels. If a story is somehow close to me I'll be interested…. I have two children and I'm always interested in a story about a dad with kids. So I can only imagine that if I were German I would want to watch shows in German, I would think: "Hey, we Germans can put out good shows too." I'd feel proud.

A lot of good series in the US are made by cable network HBO, so they don’t need mass appeal. In Germany, TV series need to work across the board. Is it easier for writers to maintain high standards when they know they only need to reach a certain audience?

Yes, but it depends on your idea. There are good network shows that do have mass appeal, and that doesn't have to be a bad thing. A lot of the shows I love are on HBO and it's great to have these outlets. Shows like "The Sopranos" and "Nip/Tuck" really push the envelope and that probably has the effect of making the broadcast networks better generally because it raises the bar. Germany could probably benefit from an equivalent. It would be great if German TV writers didn't feel they had to get 50 million viewers.

Is there a risk that projects like the "Writer’s Room" might result in very homogenous shows?

Verrückt nach Clara
The unlucky ClaraImage: Pro7

The structures and strategies we're introducing to German writers and executives have nothing to do with content. They will just lead to better shows. If the German writers have exciting ideas that are uniquely German, then projects like the "Writer's Room" will just help them realize these ideas more fully. We're not pushing any content on them.

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