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RTL: a portrait.

Helmut Thoma's quotes are always good for a laugh - but not necessarily for professionals in the media business, who are often the target of his humor. Two years ago, when the launch of digital television in Germany almost got tangled up in the rivalry between media giants Kirch and Bertelsmann, Thoma openly wondered whether its promoters were suffering from mad cow disease. And, when asked about the overwhelming success of RTL Television, now Europe's biggest TV station, the 58-year-old, Austria-born managing director answered, "We were the first to discover an entirely new target group: the viewer."

When RTL started in 1984 as a regional channel broacasting several hours a day, the station had 40 employees and a huge debt. But after a troubled childhood, RTL took off like a rocket. It is now a 24-hour channel available throughout Europe. Its advertising revenues are the highest on the continent (with 33 million TV households, Germany is the world's second largest advertising market, after the United States).

With a market share of 16.1 percent, RTL led the German television pack for a fifth year in 1997, besting public stations ARD (14.7 percent) and ZDF (13.4 percent) as well as RTL's commercial competitors Sat 1 (12.8 percent) and Pro 7 (9.5 percent). In 1996, the Cologne-based RTL reached its highest profit margin: 144.1 million marks (U.S.$8 million). Though the general opinion in the market is that RTL might have peaked (last year the station saw its first decline in ratings after reaching 17 percent the year before), RTL is one of only two German commercial stations that is turning a profit (the other being Pro 7).

Thirteen years ago, no one would have predicted RTL's dominant presence in Germany. Originally based in Luxembourg, RTL owes its success to a tragedy. In 1981, a Belgian military plane crashed into a TV antenna in southern Luxembourg, killing three. The new, more powerful transmitter erected on the site was able to transmit signals across the German border, to where commercial TV was still the dream of a few businessmen.

The newborn baby in the German media landscape was primarily seen as a strange irritant by politicians, media critics and especially the reigning public television stations. Reviewers called RTL the "tits channel" because it broadcast game shows in which losing contestants had to perform a striptease. "After four weeks on the air, the program's quality surpassed the worst fears," wrote the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

RTL then angered the Catholic community with late-night airings of soft porn. While the quality of the programming didn't really improve after the protests, the uproar did lead to the establishment of the "Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle," a voluntary control board that monitors the violence and sexual content of shows before they are broadcast.

Further friction ensued when RTL alienated public television by paying exorbitant fees for the rights to sporting events. When Boris Becker and Steffi Graf triumphed at Wimbledon in 1989, the public stations did not broadcast the event as they had in years past. The European public stations together were willing to offer only 50 million marks for the broadcast rights, 2.2 million of which were to come from ARD and ZDE The two systems had paid 150,000 marks to broadcast the tournament live in 1988. One year later, RTL put 50 million marks on the table by itself.

As its success grew, RTL dramatically influenced the programming on other German channels. RTL introduced the docudrama to German television and successfully mimicked American sitcoms, game shows, late-night talk shows and afternoon talk shows. Viewers who had access to only three public stations in 1984 can now choose from more than 30 free TV channels. Public television has been forced to make its content more attractive to mass audiences.

According to Thoma, RTL gets "copied mercilessly" by other German stations; almost all the German channels, including the public stations, now offer daily soaps and afternoon talk. Thoma is sometimes annoyed by this development: "First they pour buckets of scorn and mockery over us, and now they do the same."

However, RTL has changed its own profile several times over the years. When viewers got bored with reruns of American series like Starsky & Hutch and Magnum (which they'd already seen on public television), RTL started to focus on its own productions. In the early '90s, RTL brought the first daily soap opera to German television, launched a number of medical series with popular actors and produced action series like Cobra 11 and Medicopter. According to Thoma, even the U.S. networks are interested in buying its action programs. For years, Germany's only international television export was the cop show Derrick, which dates back to the '60s.

Since Thoma installed his old Viennese friend Hans Mahr as RTL's information director, the station's news profile has also changed. Mahr is very keen on presenting news that is both meaningful and easy to consume. Again, these shows have an American influence: some national and international coverage, lots of accidents and human interest stories, lots of sports. "News is the decisive thing to me," said Thoma, who calls Disney CEO Michael Eisner and ABC founder Harry Goldenson his idols. "Ben Hur drives around the corner the same way on any channel. It's different with information." Thoma even wants to increase RTL's airing of documentaries, provided, of course, that they are the sort of nonfiction programming that will appeal to large audiences.

Thoma doesn't think that all of his competitors will be able to survive in what is now a very crowded marketplace. Many media managers predict a long-awaited "market clearance," in which special interest stations like the news channel N-TV or the "women's network" TM 3 will either disappear or be snapped up by Bertelsmann or Kirch.

In criticizing the "monopoly" of those two giants, Thoma has made many enemies, including top managers at Bertelsmann, which holds majority ownership of RTL. Bertelsmann wants to replace Thoma as manager of the network and offer him a seat on the corporate board; Thoma has been blamed for autocratic leadership and for costing the company $100 million by spending too much on programming.

Thoma, who originally planned to remain in charge of RTL until 2004, may be getting used to the idea of a change. German papers mention the present head of Austrian Television (ORF), Gerhard Zeiler, as a possible successor. So far, Thoma has yet to offer any ironic commentary on the idea of one Austrian import replacing another. For Thoma, however, irony is "the only way to survive - it's way better than getting angry."
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Title Annotation:Europe's largest television station RTL Television
Author:Schoen, Gerti
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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