Karola Wille on ARD reform and the opportunities for documentary filmmakers

Karola Wille, lawyer, director of the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR) and film director of ARD, sits in front of a bright blue wall. “In the middle of Germany. In the middle of life” is written on it, it is the slogan of the broadcasting corporation in Leipzig – this is how the MDR presented itself at the DOK Leipzig, the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film at the end of October. The venue for the ARD program workshop, an annual meeting point where producers of documentary formats and those responsible for ARD come together.

Karola Wille was the hostess. As the film director of ARD, she is responsible for the dialogue with producer associations and creative people in the film and television industry. But it is also in demand when, for example, the producers negotiate with ARD about remuneration rules for the digital world – i.e. for media libraries. The program workshop was a first important date for those involved since the announcement of a major program reform for the first by ARD program director Christine Strobl two weeks earlier. The media library should also be reorganized, the basic idea: More users should find their way to public broadcasting via the media library, so more formats should be built in such a way that they work well in the on-demand world. Strobl’s message sounded as if filmmakers also had to adapt their products.

Formats, lengths, target groups – everything is currently being renegotiated, including in documentary films

In an interview with the SZ, Karola Wille relativized this impression: The announced program reform should strengthen the documentary – both in the media library and in the first German television. It just “doesn’t just go into the other world of use,” says the MDR director. So about the media library, as some might think. The linear program is also being rethought, with the aim of reaching younger audiences, among other things.

This is approved by the producers. Dennis Leiffels is director and managing director of the production company “Sendefähig”, the documentary series such as Y-Kollektiv, Rabiat or Reportage art produced for various public service programs with a focus on a young target group. According to Leiffels, this would be thirsting for investigative formats: For young filmmakers, the realignment of the ARD media library is “a huge opportunity to address the issues of a young generation from the perspective of a young generation”.

The Monday evening in the First, which is to be restructured into an “information evening”, plays an important role in strengthening such documentary formats. The prime time slot at 8:15 pm is intended to be a “showcase for the best documentary productions,” explains Wille. What exactly does that mean for creative people if they want to do business with Reform-ARD? Wille names high-quality productions, a variety of perspectives, and thorough research as key words. The special thing about documentary productions is that they “illuminate social reality with a depth of focus” and in this way offer a lot of material for discussion. About politics, economy, culture, history, sport. But also niche topics. You want to reach certain target groups.

Wille believes that previous restrictions are no longer available due to the media possibilities offered by the media library. From now on, formats would sometimes be seen first or even exclusively in the media library. Dagmar Biller, producer and managing director of “Tangram Film”, sees these freedoms as “a tremendous opportunity” that she wants to use: “We producers are now called upon to fill the program reform with life, sometimes in new ways in terms of content and form to go. ” The handwriting of the authors would henceforth play a much bigger role, adds Biller. And also Susanne Binninger, producer and chairwoman of AG DOK, recognizes the new media potential: “The media libraries could be a laboratory and platform for real innovations.” She describes change as a positive sign. With the strengths of the media library and the focus on programs in linear television, Germany would face an international boom. This boom can be seen in the large range of documentation offered by international streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, which Leiffels also referred to. In the same breath, however, he also mentioned “Funk”, the young content network of public law.

ARD film director Karola Wille on documentaries: Example of productions for public broadcasting by "Capable of sending": The documentary series "Rabiat".

Example of productions for public broadcasting from “Sendefähig”: The documentary series “Rabiat”.

(Photo: Das Erste / Screenshot)

Wille denies the question of whether only high-click documentaries will be produced. Leiffels also emphasizes that the journalistic work remains the same, which is still committed to the high standards of public service productions. But the demands on the filmmakers would be different. To be successful, you have to be at eye level with the audience: “The young target group expects serious, transparent quality journalism and the correction of errors.” She does not want to be under-challenged, but rather to experience “sore muscles in the synapses”. But what claims the synapses? Leiffels makes it clear that this is not meant to curry favor with the audience, that is, to be young and hip in a hurry. Instead, he calls for authentic formats. They are then when the filmmakers “also say where they failed, what you know, but also what you don’t know”.

In addition, the marketing of the documentation would change. In the meantime you have to actively approach the audience, he demands. Wille also predicts a further development of the genre, which is currently being shaped by the new design options of the media library. It “opens up completely new spaces for new formats, new lengths, target groups and new narrative styles”. That expands the creative scope. Producers can break out of a strict corset of previously customary specifications. However, and this is what all of the producers surveyed emphasize, this opportunity could only be used if the necessary budgets are provided. The ARD must succeed in pooling funds accordingly, demands Biller.

With the new possibilities of digital narrative forms, according to Wille, “a great time for documentaries” is dawning. The documentary filmmakers will be happy to hear the message, but will measure the ARD against this claim.


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