Tanja Hüther: „Our local and regional presence is our USP“

By Melanie Schmid

How can the media library of the broadcasting company ARD differentiate itself from other streaming service providers? Why should competition and alliance be carefully weighed? What does the board game “Ludo” have to do with new target groups? Tanja Hüther, Head of Distribution and Digital Platforms of the broadcasting company Bayerischer Rundfunk, will answer these questions in the following interview.

In the thick of things, not just on the sidelines. This description suits your role in the shifting digital media landscape quite well, doesn't it? If you had to explain to your grandma what your job is – what would you tell her?

Tanja Hüther: I would tell her: “Grandma, I work at the TV station BR.” Since I come from the region of Hesse, I would probably say that this is similar to their regional channel HR. This is a positive message for people from her generation because it means that I am in good hands. I would add: “Together with my colleagues we want to bring BR to the internet, because that is where the young people watch things and listen to content.”

The range of streaming providers and formats is growing and Disney+ joined the trend in March 2020. The public service broadcasters are trying to attract audiences with international blockbusters. How does ARD’s media library stand out?

Hüther: That's right. This development has been on the horizon for over ten years, but it always turns out differently than expected. This year in particular has taken a surprising turn (partly because of the Corona crisis). Linear programming, for example, remains consistently strong. At the beginning of 2017, we made a medium-term forecast which we have just revised. The radio stations in particular – Bayern 1, Bayern 3 – are more successful than ever.

It is nothing new that people rely on quality media and, above all, on public service broadcasters in times of crisis. This year, not only TV ratings but also digital coverage underline this fact. Reliable and balanced reporting as well as background information are one of the key unique selling points in comparison to global streaming service providers. But fiction and entertainment are also in high demand.

It's interesting to see that this year’s biggest increases can be attributed to the public sector and Disney+. In my view, this shows very clearly the complementary positioning of the different services. Another USP is local and regional anchoring. Many platforms try to distinguish themselves with local content. ARD’s platform is 100 percent local and 100 percent original – or at least 95 percent if you count exactly.

The podcast market currently shows in a very impressive way that young people are very interested in political and scientific topics. This is what we have to observe very closely.

Entertainment, information, archives? What is the strategy for your own platform?

Hüther: Everything put together. We didn’t invent a completely independent program strategy. It all depends on our mission. The latter is defined in the State Broadcasting Treaty and soon in the State Media Treaty. We follow this mission on the digital platforms as well as in our linear programming. Entertainment, information, education – this is all part of our guiding principle.

The media library as an on-demand product offers completely new opportunities – especially in terms of niche content and archived programs. This year, we launched a major project to broadcast archived content and to make it more accessible. The media library also enables us to address very different target groups. In order to do so, the offer must be personalized. In this respect, the international platforms are way ahead of us – we are working hard on this.

Most of the VoD customers are under the age of 30, while the public service broadcasters traditionally reach an older target audience. Which viewers do you focus on in your media library?

Hüther: We observe more and more that VoD services are now conquering older target groups. As is the case with many innovations, early adopters tend to be younger and male, and as market saturation increases, the user base adjusts to the average population. But it is true that the users of the media library are about 20 years younger than those of linear TV programs, although we still have to catch up with the very young target groups. By the way, this works quite well with our format “funk”. This is often overlooked in the public’s eye. In the future, we must definitely succeed better on our own platforms.

Which content works best to attract and to keep this audience?

Hüther: There is some sort of “Ludo” category within the programs – the target group ranges from 6 to 99 years of age. But only a few of them are able to put this into practice. The daily news program Tagesschau is one of them – we have seen this particularly in the last few months. The regional series “Dahoam is Dahoam” has regular viewers from very different age groups.

In general, almost any age group can be reached with all genres and all topics. The approach, the perspective, and the style are crucial. In our company, the format “Puls” stands for a very young perspective and style, which includes successful programs such as “Das schaffst Du nie” (You Won’t Make It). The podcast market currently shows in a very impressive way that young people are very interested in political and scientific topics. This is what we have to observe very closely. We are working on an increase of the representation of young people within the programs of ARD.

In the end, I am convinced that public service programs will retain a strong and very specific place. Especially if together they learn to better use economies of scale and network effects.“

The concept for the successful BR series Hindafing, for example, was the result of a public call for tenders at the University for Television and Film in Munich. Is cooperation useful in the fiercely contested VoD and television market and will they replace classic in-house productions in the future?

Hüther: Collaborations and alliances have increased in importance on many levels - production, distribution, and innovation. This is also due to the shift in competitive pressure from companies that achieve significant global economies of scale.

But BR has always collaborated with production companies and universities. Only a part of the programming consists of in-house productions. Cooperation with young and independent creative talents as well as their promotion will always be an important part of BR.

Why are series like Hindafing so popular? Which platforms work best for this kind of content?

Hüther: It is no surprise that Hindafing was more successful on-demand than on linear TV. In the BR television program scheme, this production is a bit exotic. Although more and more older people are using on-demand services, young people are not switching back to TV for linear programs. Young people are online. Hindafing is a young format, certainly surprising and courageous in many ways.

Let’s talk more about Hindafing. The series can not only be found in your media library but also on Netflix. Don’t the platforms mutually kill themselves?

Hüther: In the end it’s all about the attention and time the viewers spend watching the series. The latter is limited to 24 hours per day and therefore the platforms are certainly competitors, even if the media library and Netflix address complementary target groups. We needed partners to finance Hindafing. We have to weigh it each time – does the respective alliance help us to achieve our goal? Or do the risks outweigh the benefits?

One of your tasks is to increase BR's presence in digital media, including social media. What opportunities and risks do you see for the public service broadcasters on such platforms?

Hüther: I would rephrase the task a little bit. The aim is to secure the presence of BR along with its programs and brands in the long term, regardless of the way in which they are broadcast. If social media helps us to achieve this, we will use it actively. The word "sustainable" is quite important in this case.

To put it bluntly – a complete transfer to social media platforms could perhaps increase the reach in the short term, but in the medium and long term we would relinquish any control over our content, its context, the contact with the user, as well as over our data security. The interests and goals of commercial platforms differ from ours. We see our own digital platforms as a prerequisite for us to continue to fulfill our public service mission in the future.

If you look to the future – how will the market develop? Which distribution channels will be most successful?

Hüther: Let's see – successful distribution channels will be digitized. They will use big economies of scale in terms of technology, data, and markets. The bigger the better. They will aggregate various programs and the offer will be very specific and completely personalized. They will have to demonstrate innovative strength over a long period of time. These are all high demands.

I think some of the current big names will be with us for a long time – YouTube, Netflix, Disney in one form or another, Spotify, TuneIn. But strong information and publishing brands will also gain popularity. In the end, I am convinced that public service programs will retain a strong and very specific place. Especially if together they learn to better use economies of scale and network effects.

Which channels do you personally prefer? And why?

Hüther: At home we have subscribed to three print products – Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit and FAS. Why print? My attention span is much longer. In addition, print is relaxing if you constantly work in front of a screen. When it comes to news, I use the daily news program Tagesschau’s app, the news site BR 24, and Twitter. I listen to podcasts when I cycle to work and when I do sports, and I use Instagram to stay up to date and to have a nice time. I try to keep an eye on the different video services as much as possible – I have subscribed to many OTT services and I have numerous boxes under my TV.