ZDF’s Thomas Bellut

Director-General Thomas Bellut tells World Screen how ZDF’s range of programming helps support democracy and contributes to political culture and social cohesion, and how the industry may change post-pandemic.

Much like people in other nations, for the past year, Germans have had to adapt to lockdowns, isolation, disruption in routines and unrelenting cycles of sobering news. With the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, this year brings the promise of a return to some level of normalcy, but change will continue. German citizens will see shifts in their political landscape with several elections, particularly the one in September, after which Angela Merkel, who has been chancellor since 2005, will step down.

Through all the adjustments, Teutonic viewers have had a source of trusted, impartial news and quality entertainment: the public broadcaster ZDF. From current-affairs shows offering analysis to historical documentaries, entertainment series, gripping dramas, sports and the respected daily newscast heute, ZDF is committed to public service. And the audience responds. In 2020, ZDF maintained its position as the most-watched channel in Germany, with a share of 13.6 percent among total viewers.

Well aware of changing consumer habits and streaming platforms that compete for viewer loyalty, ZDF is making its content available on its linear channels—which include ZDF and the thematic channels ZDFneo and ZDFinfo—jointly managed channels, branded online destinations and apps, and on third-party sites.

WS: What does ZDF represent for German viewers and citizens? What does ZDF provide that other linear and nonlinear platforms do not?
BELLUT: ZDF is the most successful national public-service provider on TV and online. We offer a wide-ranging, high-quality portfolio of entertainment, culture and information via all channels, almost all entirely without advertising. We are independent in terms of financial and political influence. As we are financed by the general broadcasting license fee, we can help shape opinions among the general population.

WS: Democracy is being threatened in several countries, unbelievably even in the U.S. How has ZDF contributed to upholding democracy in Germany?
BELLUT: Fortunately, democracy is very stable in Germany. The relationship between the federal government and the 16 states contributes to this. The media landscape is also an important aspect. In addition to critical reporting, the various interests and opinions in society are reflected. ZDF offers independent and factual information. Our editorial teams research and review information from all parts of society. We also deal firmly with mistakes. If we make any, we are transparent about it. This strengthens trust, and we have a high level of credibility in large parts of society. Despite all the criticism that is voiced, there is still broad support for democracy in Germany.

WS: What can ZDF and its news division do to combat misinformation on social media?
BELLUT: We have an experienced and well-trained editorial team. Information and sources are critically checked before they are published. The audience can always rely on that. We also continuously provide fact-checks. This is how we counteract the large amount of misinformation that exists in the market. Our news team has a dedicated unit for this. Users can form their own opinion when they have this information. We also identify fake news on TV and confront it with factual information. Last but not least, we use journalistic rigor to address the phenomenon of conspiracy theories. This is an important task, especially in light of the coronavirus deniers, who are unsettling a lot of people with their theories.

WS: How has ZDF been serving its viewers during the pandemic?
BELLUT: By reporting intensively and thoroughly about the virus and its consequences for society. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have given scientists, politicians and those who have been affected a place to express their perspectives. We have also conveyed the many learning and knowledge processes that have taken place over the past year. It is important that people understand that this pandemic is a process. The world of science is also learning. All of humanity has had to learn how to live with uncertainty. The media can help promote an understanding of this. People’s interest in information and the background context of the pandemic is certainly extremely high. But entertainment is also important. Many people are spending a lot of time at home. The pandemic is stressful, so there is also a need for distraction and diversion. We have also created a dedicated range of online content for schoolchildren. We are supporting homeschooling in the lockdown phases by providing tutorials and documentation.

WS: What are the most significant investments ZDF has made in programming across all genres during the last year?
BELLUT: We have increased the number of staff working on our digital information output. But the biggest investments continue to be made in commissioned fiction and documentary productions. Despite the production restrictions due to the pandemic, we have increased our investment in this area. We are covering most of the additional costs arising from the restrictions resulting from the pandemic. We are working very closely with producers, and together we have managed to ensure that the important flow of new content remains steady.

WS: Are there any particular age groups or genres you are focusing on?
BELLUT: As a public-service broadcaster, our range of content and programs is generally aimed at society as a whole. But, of course, in the digital world, we also differentiate our content and output based on the relevant target audience. One example is the content for the funk service aimed at young people, which we create in conjunction with the public-service provider ARD. We also have linear themed channels like ZDFneo and ZDFinfo, which are aimed more at a middle-aged audience. And we place relevant online content on various social media platforms, via which we can reach appropriate user groups. The greatest challenge is undoubtedly getting young people interested in our content.

WS: Could you give some examples of how ZDF is reaching viewers beyond the linear channel? What are some of ZDF’s most popular services?
BELLUT: Science topics work well online. We have, therefore, further developed our Terra X core brand accordingly and launched it online as well. For example, we have content on YouTube, including short explanatory videos and also longer documentaries. This allows us to reach a large and primarily younger audience. Comedy is another element. ZDF brands such as the satirical heute-show and the weekly late-night show ZDF Magazin Royale with Jan Böhmermann work extremely well on the internet. There is, of course, a dedicated ZDF news service online as well. The ZDFheute app has gained lots of new users during the first year of the pandemic with its news, background information and lots of live streams.

WS: Is ZDF reaching new viewers via Joyn?
BELLUT: We are extending our linear and nonlinear content to as many platforms as possible, and Joyn is one of these. It is not a separate content offering but an additional output channel. It enables the audience to find our content on portals where they would otherwise not look for it. Our goal is to reach people where they already use media content.

WS: There has been an ongoing debate about the cost and validity of license fees in several countries. In Germany, what groups of people or political factions oppose an increase in, or the very existence of, the license fee, and why?
BELLUT: Germany has a wide range of public-service content. The foundations for this were laid in the early post-war period. The idea behind this is that a diverse range of content leads to better quality and objectivity. Over the last few decades, politicians have commissioned the creation of new channels, such as a channel for children, international cultural channels and the funk content offering for young people. These are not always greeted with enthusiasm by everyone—for example, by the commercial media. It is currently being discussed whether the statutory broadcasting mandate is still relevant or should be made more flexible.

WS: Conversely, why is public-service broadcasting important for German society and culture?
BELLUT: The coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the importance of having public and independent broadcasters. Public-service broadcasting has contributed to the cohesion of society for decades. It helps people form opinions about social and political issues. In this age of fake news and conspiracy theories, reliable and credible output with strong and trustworthy brands has become even more important. A key advantage is also that socially disadvantaged people can access the whole range of content. They can make use of the full range of services without having to pay for it.

WS: What have been ZDF Enterprises’ main accomplishments in the last year? How has the business contributed to ZDF, for example, in terms of international reputation?
BELLUT: ZDF Enterprises’ main business areas are the rights and license trade and the management of an efficient portfolio of 18 media companies as a direct shareholder. Due to its comprehensive international network and experienced staff with their deep knowledge of worldwide markets and industries, ZDF Enterprises and its production group can provide us with information on the latest programming trends and economic and production developments at a very early stage.

ZDF, as a public broadcaster, cannot operate in the marketplace like a private company, nor can we take the same risks. For this reason, ZDF Enterprises often acts as our co-production partner in the realization of important national and international projects, acquiring additional rights at its own risk. Thus, the com­pany’s global success also strengthens ZDF’s reputation as an innovative and high-quality broadcaster.

As the shareholder, we are proud of the development and accomplishments of the ZDF Enterprises group since its foundation in 1993, but in particular in these very difficult times of the pandemic. Its activities contribute to the fulfillment of our mission as a public broadcaster.

WS: What are the major opportunities and challenges that ZDF will face in the next 12 months?
BELLUT: This is a big election year in Germany. There are a lot of state elections and there will be a national parliamentary election in the autumn. ZDF will make its contribution by reporting independently and critically on all the political developments. There will be a wide range of content, lots of documentation, interview programs, background reports, analyses and the latest news and updates. We are also faced with the challenge of having to do all this under difficult pandemic conditions. But it is a good opportunity to show how relevant public-service media is for democracy, political culture and social cohesion.