Germans want home-grown TV ... with US look

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On Tuesday nights at 8:15, teenager Marianne Rietschel grabs a place on the sofa with her grandmother and watches "Medicopter 117," a series about a rescue helicopter.

"It's really exciting and fun to watch," she says.

Once filming is complete in December, the show's sister series, "Helicops," about a team of airborne crimefighters, will enter its second season next year.

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Another example of American cultural imperialism?

Yes, and no.

While the "action, action. action" chopper duo is reminiscent of US shows like "Airwolf" and "Blue Thunder," they are exclusively German productions, epitomizing what some see as Europe's answer to America's cultural invasion: If you can't beat them, copy them.

And it's working.

After years of consuming American fare from "Baywatch" and "Melrose Place" to "Magnum, P.I." and "Quincy" Germans are increasingly clicking to homegrown shows produced, written, directed, and acted by Germans. These shows offer viewers familiar faces, settings, and, of course, language. But they are packaged in American formats and production values.

The demand for localized television has been spreading throughout Western Europe, whose countries are putting out more homegrown television films and series each year. But nowhere has the trend been stronger than in Germany, which dished out roughly 1,800 hours of local productions in 1997, up from 1,600 hours the year before.

And, of the top five shows on four of Germany's most popular networks, only two, "The X-Files" and "The Sentinel," were American imports. The changes on German television screens have been wrought by cultural and commercial shifts.

1980s bonanza

Producers and analysts alike point to the period of deregulation in German television in the mid-1980s as a milestone, when commercial broadcasters first emerged. Before that, Germany's broadcasters were all public. The number of stations practically doubled, opening doors for local production companies.

"It necessitated more German programming. There were basically more programming hours to fill," says Beatrice Kramm, producer of "Helicops." But there was little local talent at the time to meet the new demand, and private stations continued to import much of their programming from the US and Britain.

By the early 1990s, however, audiences were growing bored with oft-repeated American shows, says Udo Gttlich, a media analyst at Gerhard-Mercator University in Duisburg. "It got to the point when the public knew everything, and [broadcasters] had to pick up the audience with new things.... They needed to produce their own formats," he says.

And new meant near. "People want to see problems and everyday themes that come directly from their environment," says Evo Alexander Beck, producer of "Gasoline in the Blood," a show that has tried to capitalize on the popularity of German Formula 1 racing hero Michael Schumacher by spinning tales of a crime-solving race-car driver.

While people go to the movies for exotic stories, "television is a medium that tells stories from around the corner," says Mr. Beck.

Familiar stars and sites

Culturally, viewers want settings they know, problems more germane to their daily lives, and actors they might imagine bumping into on the street.

That's the appeal for Dresden teen Jens Legles. "We know the actors, we have a connection to them," he says. "And Dresden's not so far from Berlin [where many German shows are filmed], so maybe you'll see them sometime."

Instead of flying over events like New York's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the AK1 chopper in "Helicops" makes low passes over Berlin's annual Love Parade, as its heroes thwart criminals counterfeiting not dollars, but euros. And the hero of "Gasoline in the Blood" races past Berlin's Friedrich Palace Theater, not Lincoln Center.

But while meeting German viewers' demands for familiarity, many programs still tend to be repackaged ideas across the pond. "You don't make 'ER' or 'Chicago Hope,' but you make 'Operating Room,' 'Calling Dr. Bruckner,' or 'Nurse Stephanie,'" says Beck, pointing to a trio of German medical dramas. "More or less, they're pinched American products," says Beck of many German shows.

Markus Grobecker, who produces a medical series called "Stefan Frank - the Doctor Women Trust," says that "the old Continent reacts a lot to what happens in America." He adds that what is tried in Europe largely depends on whether the concept flopped or scored in the US.

The Australia connection

Duplicating a trend from earlier decades, when US producers sometimes borrowed British ideas before exporting them back to Europe, an Australian production company, Grundy, has repackaged some of its daily soaps for the European market.

Ed Prylinski, the head overseer of Grundy's top soaps, says the shows "bear very little relation to life in Australia. Just the idea from the beginning was there.... Young people making their way through the brave, big, bad, ugly world." He concedes, "It's a big clich, but it's nice. And it also works."

Grundy's biggest hits often capture 30 to 40 percent of audience share in their time slots, translating to high revenues. Its most popular program, "Good Times, Bad Times," alone accounts for about two-thirds of the ad revenues for Germany's top-ranked television station, RTL, while big-hitters "Marien Place" and "Forbidden Love" make up about 40 percent of the ad revenues for public station ARD.

The Australian soaps also have been successfully repackaged for Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, and Italian audiences. That trend, coupled with the copycatting of American shows, has some analysts worried that television is beginning to look the same everywhere.

"What we see happening is the homogenization of television formats and guidelines," says media analyst Mr. Gttlich. "And it mostly follows the US model."

Germany's top shows

RTL private station:

1. Good Times, Bad Times (soap)

2. Behind Bars - the Women's Prison (drama)

3. Medicopter 117 (action)

4. Stefan Frank - the Doctor Women Trust (drama)

ARD public station:

1. Marien Place (soap)

2. Forbidden Love (soap)

3. The Kommisar (police drama)

Pro 7 private station:

1. The X-Files (drama)

2. The Sentinel (action)

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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