ZDF Enterprises’ Ralf Rückauer

Ralf Rückauer, the VP of ZDFE.unscripted at ZDF Enterprises, talks to TV Real about what makes Great Inventions unique.

ZDF Enterprises has long been a major supplier of mega-docs—large-scale, ambitious factual productions funded by multiple commissioning broadcasters. And while that business continues to thrive for the commercial arm of the German public broadcaster ZDF, the company knew that there was a gap in the market: a large-volume slot filler that could deliver compelling information with a big dose of entertainment. Enter Great Inventions, a 35-episode series that ZDF Enterprises self-commissioned, tasking four different companies—World Media Rights, doc.station, Off the Fence and k22 film—to deliver a series of 50-minute films about the objects and technologies that have changed our lives. From subway systems and suspension bridges to bread, wine and jeans, Great Inventions uses a mix of experts, archive footage and CGI to bring to life the stories behind these everyday marvels.

TV REAL: What gap did you see in the market for a show like this?
RÜCKAUER: We have big landmark documentaries—we call them super docs—where you’re looking for several co-production partners, for example, the BBC, National Geographic, A+E, Discovery, Smithsonian and many others. Sometimes you have three, four, five partners. These are still fun for us, thinking big and creating these outstanding, once-in-a-lifetime documentaries. On the other side, there’s a growing demand from smaller DTT channels, from VOD platforms, which need volume. We thought, wouldn’t it be nice to offer to fill a weekly strand for a year? A year has 52 weeks; if we provide 35 episodes and you have a bit of a repeat ratio, you will have a full year as a weekly strand. Finding co-production partners or commissioners to say yes to such an idea is very hard. Even if [Discovery or National Geographic] say yes, they have their global network, so they will take global rights, and for us, as the distributor, there’s not much left. We thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we ignite it from our end and come up with it on our own?

TV REAL: How did you come up with the initial list of 35 inventions?
RÜCKAUER: It’s a combination of the creativity of our production companies and some research. We did a lot of market research on what our clients are most interested in. We created a list of 51 titles, and then we talked to the creatives. We started with World Media Rights—we showed them the list and said, What do you think? They didn’t want to take the exact titles, but it was a basis on which they could create their own ideas.

TV REAL: How are you working with the multiple production partners on the show?
RÜCKAUER: There are four, and three of them are within our group as subsidiaries of ZDF Enterprises. Handling them was a bit easier because they are all part of the family. Our philosophy was, let them go. These are very experienced companies, they have all been producing for the international market for decades, so it was a matter of trust. But we did decide it was too difficult to look at 35 programs, so we asked another subsidiary, ZDF Digital, to help us with the editorial process—look at rough cuts, the overall style. We wanted to have brand recognition so that all the programs look similar. There are differences in taste, of course, that’s what we wanted; that’s why we didn’t give all 35 to one producer. We wanted to have a good mix of topics and also styles. But thinking of the strand idea, we always wanted to have a similar direction, so we asked ZDF Digital to help with the editorial.

TV REAL: How does each episode break down a specific invention?
RÜCKAUER: The risk of making a program about inventions is that you can go from A to Z in a chronological way, which is very boring for an audience! Especially if someone doesn’t watch the show from the beginning. We have eight smaller segments within each episode, and we look at different aspects: historical, technology, innovation, socio-political relevance, obstacles, stakeholders and, of course, fun facts. So the bigger dramatic structure is the history—who invented it and where are we today—and in between are these stories. I was always very much behind the idea that you would have the perfect small talk for the next party; you don’t need to talk about the weather conditions or the coronavirus, you can talk about jeans or the subway!

TV REAL: How much do the episodes rely on talking heads? What about dramatic reenactments or CGI?
RÜCKAUER: We decided to ask a team of experts to be a part of the series. In most of the episodes, you will see the same experts. But we didn’t want to have “teachers” giving us lessons. It’s more accessible, it’s very funny, it’s more about bringing together these segments by them telling us anecdotes. Sometimes we also go out on location. For example, in the jeans episode, we wanted to show where we are in jeans production today. There’s a company producing jeans in a very green way, so these elements have been shot on location. We do have CGI elements and sometimes we use graphics to explain technology or how things work. We do have reenactments, but only on a limited scale. We found some funny reenactments in the archives, from the ’50s and ’60s, from ads. These re-creations they produced at that time are very funny.

TV REAL: Are you already looking at a second season?
RÜCKAUER: The good news is we have so many ideas, so we can’t wait to make more. But we have to be patient because we invested in 35 episodes and first we want to sell them. And we want to get a response from our clients and partners. We’re looking forward to our clients giving us input about their ratings, experiences and ideas. We could do spin-off formats or get more local—we could tell stories about Latin America or Asia.

TV REAL: You’ve had to launch the show in challenging times. I know it would have been one of your key launches at MIPTV. How’s the response been to the virtual launch so far?

RÜCKAUER: It was a real pity we couldn’t start at MIPTV. We had prepared for that. We had a screening planned. But the response has been very positive! We have sold six territories so far. VOD platforms are very interested in it, as it’s important for them to have a bigger volume. We still have a ways to go.