Kathrin Zechner, program director at ORF, talks to TV Real about the strength of the Universum brand in today’s marketplace.
For 30 years, ORF’s Universum strand has been delivering top-quality, blue-chip nature documentaries. Every Tuesday at 8:15 p.m., Universum showcases to its viewers the best in wildlife programming, using the latest camera technology and techniques to get up close with animals and the natural world. This year marks the fifth anniversary of Universum History, which airs Fridays at 10:40 p.m., presenting stories of human history that feature themes of love, power and death.
TV REAL: What does ORF Universum aim to bring viewers?
ZECHNER: Universum is synonymous with outstanding visuals and drama realized by the best of their class. Since the beginning, the [strand] committed to blue-chip wildlife documentaries that show charismatic landscapes and exceptional animal behavior, filmed with the newest camera technologies. That’s why every week, even in a highly competitive multimedia documentary market, a dedicated audience follows Universum on screen. This loyal fan base translated into actual figures accounts for an average market share of more than 21 percent, with peaks of more than 30 percent.
TV REAL: Tell us about the new blue-chip miniseries Russia’s Wild Sea and Sky River of the Himalayas.
ZECHNER: These new Universum landmark projects have one thing in common: they take our audiences to the most remote areas of this planet. For Sky River of the Himalayas, the filming team (including Jackson Hole award winner Klaus Feichtenberger) explored, for example, the secrets of China’s autonomous region of Tibet, a traditionally closed-off zone for most western TV crews. Following the mightiest rivers of the world from the source to the mouth is an impressive experience—in reality and on screen. Nonetheless, Russia’s Wild Sea provides an epic journey to the extremes of the northern hemisphere. In winter, most of this area is covered with floating ice—a frozen planet! Only by using helicopters was this film made possible. And, of course, it’s the most fantastic areas of our overwhelming planet—such as Siberia, Mongolia or the wild coastline of the African continent—that will inspire us for the next landmark series.
TV REAL: Are co-productions becoming a more significant part of Universum’s strategy?
ZECHNER: Co-productions have always been a strength of Universum. Inspired by the success of Universum’s nature programs, we are leveraging the potential of Universum History, our second and very successful series (now five years old), which expands new horizons in overseas markets. I am dreaming of taking the DNA of Universum even further—always relying on the inspiring input and teamwork with international experts.
TV REAL: What kind of acquisitions are sought out for Universum?
ZECHNER: We are always interested in high-quality formats that surprise us either with new ways of storytelling and/or by including the changes on our planet as an element of drama. Personally, I am very much interested in the consequences of climate change for our habitats. For example, stories of animals meeting that have never happened before, like polar bears forced to hunt in the territories of grizzlies.
TV REAL: Where do you see the future of factual programming headed as you look out at the next 30 years of Universum?
ZECHNER: I am relying on the proven success formula that lies behind Universum. And at the same time, we are constantly expanding our possibilities of cooperation and development of even more formats. I am confident that we will see a further strengthening of Universum, and I am extremely thankful to the colleagues who stand behind this successful TV brand.