Robert Franke, the VP of ZDFE.drama, tells TV Drama about navigating the crowded global scripted landscape.
A few weeks before MIPTV, ZDF Enterprises announced it had inked a deal with Netflix for Tabula Rasa, bringing the psychological thriller to the streaming platform’s global footprint, excluding Germany, the U.K. and France, where the service has a second window on the drama. Produced in Belgium, Tabula Rasa reflects the increasing diversity of ZDF Enterprises’ scripted slate, which has expanded well beyond its German roots.
TV DRAMA: What are some of the dramas on your slate that you are most excited about?
FRANKE: There is the second season of Ku’damm. It stands out as a great piece of content. It’s a period drama from Germany. Especially in these times, it’s a very important piece of content because it’s about women trying to emancipate themselves from societal norms and stand up for themselves. In the time of #MeToo, this sends a powerful message that there are obstacles that can be overcome if you’re persistent enough. It’s topical even though it’s period. These are themes and tropes that are important, especially nowadays. We sold [season one] to all major territories. We’re positive that the second season will be even stronger. Returning series always help to boost sales. And it’s a flagship for ZDF as well.
We also have the fourth season of Bron/Broen. That’s a big one from Scandinavia for us. It’s not only the conclusion of one of our most successful franchises—it’s also an important piece in our catalog because it’s been sold all across the world. It’s a well-known brand, and the fourth season, in our opinion, is one of the strongest ones in the whole arc.
TV DRAMA: I imagine your buyers are sad to see that franchise ending.
FRANKE: Yes, we are sad that there are no further seasons coming up, but then again, we like that the producers and the [commissioning] channels are considerate in how they are treating the franchise. We see people all the time keeping series alive even as the franchise is fading away. There is a point when you have say, Let’s stop now.
TV DRAMA: Do European drama series tend to have more limited runs than American network shows?
FRANKE: There are two types of European drama. You have these long-running series and franchises, usually for the early evening on the pubcasters. It’s mostly procedurals. We have a lot of these too, especially our crime shows and the romance series, which are super successful. But if you look at the highlight titles and the real flagships, they tend to have fewer seasons. I think it’s because there’s a bit more of an awareness that you have to find the right time to stop doing something. It’s dictated by the story. Look at what’s happening to a lot of long-running cable TV showsright now. [They feel] repetitive. Sometimes you’ll have something that will just live for one season. You should make it as well as you can and move on to the next one. It’s always great if you can build a franchise, but you have to be respectful of the idea and the premise and not milk it for the sake of it.
TV DRAMA: What are some of the qualities you look for with dramas to invest in?
FRANKE: Market segmentation is picking up speed, primarily driven by the streaming platforms. Even smaller shows tend to find an audience now. That is great but also kind of scary. People in our industry are used to selling their flagships to hundreds of territories. Now you have all these smaller shows popping up like mushrooms. People call it the golden age of television. In my mind, it’s the golden age of fragmentation. As a consequence, as a distribution company or a production company—we’re a hybrid of both, as we’re kicking off projects with our partners—it’s important to become more diverse in the titles we’re adding to our catalog. There are smaller shows with great premises for niche audiences, and you have to find these viewers out there. It’s harder and harder to generate these worldwide hits. People are more selective, and they are watching things that cater to their needs. In that regard, we are diversifying our portfolio. We have been very strong in the past in crime and romance, but now we see there’s a growing demand for elevated genre ideas, things blending into each other, and there’s even more flexibility in what channels want. We will continue to have our very strong Scandinavian production lineup, but we will also look into smaller topics now. We’re broadening our corridor of what we take in.
TV DRAMA: Are you seeing a greater openness to limited event series or do buyers need shows that are returnable?
FRANKE: There is a rise in anthologies. Fargo is a great example. Even things like Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams or Black Mirror are gaining more traction. Generally, free-TV buyers are looking for returning series, long-running stuff, but in the streaming world, those rules don’t necessarily apply. [SVODs] look at it from a target-audience point of view. If they think it can drive conversions and keep the retention high, they will take it, even if it’s just one season.
TV DRAMA: You have invested a lot in Scandi drama. Are there other territories you see as emerging drama hotspots?
FRANKE: We’ve added a lot of Belgian shows. The production landscape, the whole ecosystem in Belgium, resembles Scandinavia. It’s a small territory; they cannot afford to produce solely by themselves—they have to co-produce—and at the same time, there is a lot of creativity in the territory. And they have to look for a worldwide market. So there is more openness to creating something that doesn’t only do well on the home turf. Scandinavia is a bit heavy on the crime side, and people expect this. Genres from Scandinavia other than crime are not being given much of a chance. Something like Tabula Rasa, if it had come from Scandinavia, would have been a harder sell. People expect Scandi noir from Scandinavia. There aren’t these preconceptions about what the Belgian market is producing, which is certainly helpful. Also, there are more internationally marketable programs coming out of the big territories. Germany is a good example—Ku’damm now has a chance to travel the world. That is not always true for our bread-and-butter business like the early-evening German shows, which we sell very successfully to a handful of territories but we have a hard time selling to the U.S. Ku’damm can travel everywhere because of the narrative quality and the production values. Italian content had a reputation for being slow-paced and not very sexy. We have Maltese, which is super successful. It represents a new generation of film and TV makers driven to produce exciting new stuff.
TV DRAMA: How are you finding new talent?
FRANKE: We have to create an environment where we foster new talent. That’s something we’re trying to do. We are trying to find ideas that have an international angle or that stand for quality. If it’s a new voice, a new writer, for example, we team them up with experienced creative talent. In a highly consolidated market, you have to take risks, you have to give emerging talent a chance to do something they believe is unique and you have to support them. That’s what we’re doing.
TV DRAMA: What new projects are you working on?
FRANKE: We teamed up with a couple of handpicked U.S. producers. The first show out of development is One Bad Apple with Gavin and Rebecca Scott. Paul Johnson from Tuvalu is producing it for us. It’s unique for us because we haven’t done anything like this in the past. There are two more shows in the pipeline also with U.S. producers. Like everybody else, we’re investing at an earlier stage, taking more risks, but also are becoming more involved in the creative side to make sure we get something that we can really sell. We also co-produce, and we help finance.
TV DRAMA: How do you craft a windowing strategy for each title?
FRANKE: There is no one-size-fits-all. We look at what we have and determine who are the most likely candidates to greenlight something like this. And then we try to get feedback as early as possible. And then work out a strategy together with them. If you go to a large SVOD platform and they turn something into an original show, there isn’t much windowing you can do. You have to ask yourself, is it the right thing to do for the show? It might be, and sometimes you have to say, No, this is not what I want, we are aiming for a different type of exposure and we’d rather sell it off one by one. It’s always weighing the strategic value of a deal versus the commercial value. We talk to our producers and ask them, What are you expecting from us, besides money? That might be exposure or festival success or whatever, and then we craft a windowing strategy that reflects that.