From cutting-edge science series to insightful history docs and blue-chip wildlife and natural history, ZDF Enterprises (ZDFE) is a preeminent distributor of factual content to the global market. While it certainly does tap into the slate of commissions from its parent company, German pubcaster ZDF, the division has dramatically expanded its lineup over the years by aligning with producers across the globe, boarding projects early and even commissioning its own productions, as it did with Great Inventions. In this wide-ranging interview, Ralf Rückauer, VP ZDFE.unscripted, tells TV Real Weekly about ZDF Enterprises’ approach to partnering with talented creatives, its relationship with subsidiary Off the Fence and trends in the doc business today.
TV REAL: What has been your company’s approach to securing content to sell worldwide?
RETURNERS: We always look for quality-driven programs. As we’ve been in the market for more than 25 years, we know most of the production companies. For the last ten years, we haven’t just been working with German production companies—we’re also working with British companies, Canadian companies, Australians and so on. We try to choose the best ones. We did it by spending a bit more money than our competitors. But also, there’s a lot of stability and trust in the relationships we have. This is not so much about the channel—as you know, we’re 100 percent owned by the broadcaster ZDF—because it’s not necessarily part of [all of our projects]. We have good working relationships with lots of independents. We have a lot of opportunities—we just have to choose the right ones. To be more precise, we are starting early. We sometimes even encourage producers to come up with ideas and then we can discuss them. Sometimes we do development funding so we can help the producer create a sizzle to present to potential partners. We do that two or three times a year. In addition, we do self-commissioning. We have Great Inventions, for example, a 35-part series we completely financed on our own, without any partners attached. We really do early-stage commitments.
TV REAL: I’m curious about the relationship with Off the Fence, given it’s a well-regarded distributor in its own right.
RETURNERS: Most people say “merger” and think 50 percent of the staff will get fired! I’ve been co-CEO at Off the Fence for two years. We had plans to merge the teams, specifically in distribution, but then Ellen Windemuth [the founder of Off the Fence] and I sat down and said, maybe we should keep them separate. It’s a different culture, different personnel, different structures, different partners. So we chose not to. ZDF Enterprises owns the company, and we have a lot of exchanges about the market. Sometimes we get approached by a production company and they offer us a program, and I’ll say it’s not for my catalog, but it might be something for Off the Fence. And vice versa. Sometimes we do deals together. Off the Fence has strengths in certain territories and vice versa. We’re not competing. It’s very comfortable.
TV REAL: What developments are you seeing in the AVOD space? And how do you determine if you want to do a deal with an emerging platform when revenues are likely to be small at first?
RETURNERS: There’s huge interest in AVOD at the moment, specifically in FAST channels, because they are lean-back experiences. It’s an exciting area. You can’t make a lot of money, but you can collect money. We’ve always been very active on all platforms. We were a launch partner for iTunes in Germany 15 years ago. Same with Netflix. We started collaborating with Google and YouTube. And we have plans to launch FAST channels. We have partners we license to, but it’s always good to have different areas you’re active in. We license to other AVOD partners, but we also try to do that on our own. Similarly, with SVOD, we’re able to launch an SVOD platform from one day to the other as we have the expertise. We’re trying to be not only a distributor.
TV REAL: What trends are you seeing in the business today?
RETURNERS: Everyone wants true crime, but it needs to be very local and specific, which doesn’t sell internationally and that’s a problem. German broadcasters want local German crime; the French want French crime. The U.S. crime always translates, but we can’t do that as a German distributor, so we don’t invest in that area. We’ve had a strategy since 2013 to invest in wildlife, science and history only. We are sticking to that plan. We have excellent World War II programming, which is still strong. We are strong in ancient history, wildlife and science. I see another wave coming up that is more intellectual. People are thinking about climate change. My impression is, what is the next step? What will happen after that wave? You don’t want to just watch a climate change doc; you want something different. People are thinking about Covid-19 and what it says about us and our relationship to nature. We’re trying to bring green thinking to the next level. That’s one of my biggest interests. And many clients are asking us for dinosaurs! It’s been years since you saw the big landmark Walking with Dinosaurs. Now we have better CGI technology. What would happen if you transferred that technology into a really good dinosaur story? I would love to build up a classic co-production model with three or four partners, maybe public broadcaster-led but not necessarily, possibly in combination with a streamer, to tell the dinosaur story from A to Z again.
TV REAL: You launched Rescued Chimpanzees of the Congo with Jane Goodall at MIPCOM. How important are recognizable names for broadcasters and platforms?
RETURNERS: It’s great we have Jane Goodall, but it’s not a Jane Goodall show. She’s part of it but not the host—she’s not on-screen all the time. It’s more about what she built at this rescue camp. It’s really about the animals and the people who do the daily work there. They are the real heroes of the program. It’s like a docusoap; you learn about the chimps and the people there and the spirit of Jane Goodall is always in the room.
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ZDF Enterprises’ Ralf Rückauer – TVREAL