Shining a Light on Great Inventions

Ralf Rückauer, VP of ZDFE.unscripted, talks to TV Real about Great Inventions, a series spotlighting the greatest inventions of mankind that was initiated, self-commissioned and fully financed by ZDF Enterprises.

Offering insight into the ingenious innovations that have rocked our world, Great Inventions examines everything from common everyday items (think batteries and denim jeans) to those that have had a profound impact on the world (like satellites and X-rays). The series, which spotlights the greatest inventions of mankind, was initiated, self-commissioned and fully financed by ZDF Enterprises.

“It all started a few years ago,” explains Rückauer. “Driven by massive changes in our industry, we decided to expand our focus as a distributor. We secured ideas and creative talent in a new, different way. We self-commissioned programs like Size Matters, World War A—When Aliens Attack and Planet of Volcanoes from scratch and without any external financing from broadcasters or platforms who came on board at a later stage. This made us fast, flexible ***Image***and market-driven. The next consequence was to not only think about one-offs or three-parters, but to go for a slot or a strand proposition.”

Indeed, Great Inventions is being envisioned as a long-running series. Rückauer believes it has long legs to run for multiple seasons because it is based on such a broad DNA. “My belief is that this series will run and run and will grow and grow in a very evolutionary way,” he says. “If you just take a look around at all the objects that surround you in your daily life—the subway, the jeans you wear, the watch on your arm, the screen in front of you, the telephone you use—there are so many stories behind these inventions that need to be told. This strand will grow and grow. We are aiming to get 300 to 400 episodes or even more over the course of the next decade.”

ZDF Enterprises’ subsidiaries World Media Rights, Off the Fence and doc.station are starting with the first 30 episodes; these will be followed by another 5 episodes from German production company k22film. “Since February, we are announcing one episode a week,” Rückauer says. “We are so much looking forward to having conversations with clients and to start selling. We received a lot of interest from broadcasters and streamers around the world. ZDFinfo is on board as a presale partner for ten-plus episodes.” He adds that the team is looking forward to getting more input from partners on the editorial in order to enhance the series even more.

“The series aims for broadcasters that need to fill in or create a new slot,” Rückauer explains. “With 35 episodes as a start, you may establish a weekly slot for one year. So DTT channels and specialist factual broadcasters will love this series. Aside from that—and at the same time—it is the perfect match for binge-watchers on streaming platforms.”

All episodes have been produced in English, so the aim is for an international audience, Rückauer says. “All stories and content are very global,” he adds. “People wear jeans all over the planet so an episode like this should resonate with everybody around the globe. As a second step, one could think about a more local approach. We are looking forward to getting some local input from our clients as I could imagine it would be very interesting to have different versions with different experts created by different producers in different countries and languages. This could make the strand more diverse and broaden views on ‘great inventions.’”

This series is being built on a “very intelligent narrative,” which provides what Rückauer calls “the perfect extended party talk.” He explains, “We know a lot about jeans; we do wear them every day. We use elevators, cars and subways, and we drink wine. But by watching Great Inventions, we learn a little bit more than we used to know before. Where does the name ‘blue denim’ or ‘jeans’ come from? Your next party talk is safe; you don’t need to talk about the weather anymore.”