Das Erste (ARD) – A decentralized and unique public TV in Europe
Interview with Helwin Lesch, Head of Distribution at ARD
ARD, the “Association of Public Broadcasting Corporations in the Federal Republic of Germany”, is a consortium of nine self-governing regional broadcasters serving Germany’s 16 federal states. Together, they operate 16 TV stations, 63 radio stations… and Das Erste, ARD’s national TV channel that is tuned by 48 million people every week. Together with Helwin Lesch, TM Broadcast delves into the peculiarities, technical resources and strategies of the German corporation and its decentralized media landscape.
ARD is a joint organization of Germany’s regional public-service broadcasters. Could you describe ARD structure and which TVs and radio stations does ARD include?
ARD is the association of public broadcasting corporations in Germany. We have nine regional broadcasters, called Landesrundfunkanstalten, that unite in the ARD and produce regional and national TV and radio stations. Altogether we operate 16 TV stations and 63 radio stations. We cover more than 25% of the German TV market and about 52 % of the radio market.
Let’s talk about the regional members of the ARD, the Landesrundfunkanstalten. What is their contribution to Das Erste / ARD?
Das Erste is one of the main public service programs in Germany and the only one produced by nine-regional broadcasters. They provide the content of Das Erste. Its national and international news service Tagesschau for instance is produced in Hamburg and its soccer-sport-news are produced in Cologne. Furthermore, the Landesrundfunkanstalten operate their regional TV-Channels and cooperated channels with special formats, like regional-news, education or culture.
That’s really peculiar. Do you know if this set-up is unique in Europe?
I think it is really unique and it is to due to Germany´s post-war media policy. As you surely know, we had bad experiences with the centralized media during the Nazi regime. The beginning of the federal republic of Germany is closely connected to the foundation of the public broadcasting service. An independent and decentralized media landscape was one of the basic principles of the victorious powers building a new democratic state. This is still reflected in the ARD until today.
ARD is 69 years old. Das Erste, the principal television channel in Germany, will be 66 years old. That’s a long time, so my question, just to sum up, is: Which have been the main technological changes that the station has faced in the last 15-20 years?
One of the most important challenges we had to face was, of course, the emergence of the private TV broadcasters between the late 80s and the early 90s. Shortly after that digitalization began to evolve. With the possibility of broadcasting more specific programs we got the chance to meet the expectations of the consumers better. We are currently implementing our multi-and crossmedia- strategy, that we call Trimedialität. It affects all production sectors and the editorial structures for radio, TV and online with the objective to strengthen the in-house cooperation on certain topics so they can be transmitted through every distribution system we operate. Namely: radio, TV, internet or streaming.
Apart from the decentralized productions center that you just told me, is there a main production center for Dar Erste?
All production centers, i.e. all federal broadcasting stations are linked in a big network. They provide their respective contribution to the program content depending on topic, region or commercial consideration.
Das Erste was the second most viewed TV in Germany in 2018. In fact, you’re always struggling with ZDF to get the first position in the ratings. Usually, technology and success go hand in hand. Is this the case? Do you think that today’s audience ratings are related to innovation?
Well, that’s a difficult question. As you know, our users and viewers are not so keen on innovation, they want to be informed and entertained in the best way and on every distribution system they expect. So innovation is not an aim in itself for us. Therefore, we have to be careful about innovation: we should not defy our viewers’ patience excessively. We should keep an eye on the whole market range when we change something in our production or in our distribution. We cannot act only in the interest of certain groups but have to keep in mind that we are financed by all the viewers and therefore have to try to include the whole spectrum of users.
It seems you are talking about implementations like 4K, innovations that today do not reach all the viewers, although the market is driving them.
Yes, you name it. That’s one of the great discussions we have right now: which is the right way for us to start with UHD or 4K. First of all, we have a very complex production infrastructure as mentioned, so it not easy for us to change something. We have discussed UHD and will move to that technology, but that will take time.
Das Erste is also viewed in Austria. Do you focus part of your technical resources and content to this market or that audience is residual for you?
No. We are focused in our German viewers wherever they are, of course, but mainly in Germany. The fact that Das Erste can also be seen in Austria or Switzerland is not our focus and we do not aim for those markets.
4K broadcast is a reality, and HDR technology is coming. You told me that you’re thinking about how and when make those changes. Are the production centers of ARD actually ready to do these kinds of productions?
Although there are some islands in our production infrastructure where 4K/HDR is already possible, there’s no general ability to produce, to store or to work with 4K content at the moment. We are now working to finalize the HD implementation in our production and distribution center. Consequently 4K is way ahead.
So, at the moment, you do not have any fixed date for the 4K transformation: it will be something that you will decide in the future.
Yes. Although some of the productions we buy are already produced in 4K, of course, but that is mainly for the archives and for later views. At present we do not have a distribution system for 4K- neither by satellite or antenna nor by cable. The only way we can transmit in 4k-bandwidth is via internet. We have started some attempts, but you probably know that Germany is not at the top of the international lists in terms of internet bandwidth. That is another problem we have to solve.
What is ARD/Das Erste vision regarding OTT platforms?
OTT is an essential distribution system for us. Our programs are broadcasted via internet live or on demand. We have a special on demand platform called Mediathek. However, this Mediathek is subject to a time limitation which means that contents are endlessly available.
Which is the distribution standard that you are deploying?
We are part of the DVB family of standards. For terrestrial distribution we use DVB-T2 as one of the DVB standards that allows us to broadcast in FullHD via antenna. It is a real good system for the German users. For transmission via cable we have DVB-C, which, in theory, is also able to transmit Full HD: in practice, cable operators have small limitations on that. DVB-S2 is used for transmission via satellite, this system too is a main standard. We think we are well set up in the DVB family of standards.
Let’s keep talking about technological trends. Are you actually deploying mobile (streaming/IP) backpacks for the live transmission of TV News or sports events?
Yes, we have LiveU backpacks for instance and some applications for our mobile phones and smartphones, streaming… which turned out as an ideal solution for us.
Nowadays, every day it is necessary to process more and more information. Which MAM system do you trust on?
This is hard to say because, as I have mentioned before, we have many production centers with many different technologies. I cannot specify any single MAM system in the ARD, since we have a great variety of systems.
So even the information and the content that is stored are independent in every production center? I thought that that could be shared between the broadcasters…
No. It is completely independent, even though we share the products of course, like the video essences, the audio essences and the metadata.
Are you currently working with IA systems for the management and generation of metadata?
Yes. We have several initiatives working on artificial intelligence, especially for news in our archives: face recognition, automatically entitling and so on. As you probably know, we have the Institut für Rundfunktechnik, which is our research and development company here in Munich. There we pave the way for a future collaboration of the regional stations with artificial intelligence. It should be recalled that we have a legal obligation to maintain our archives in a good shape, because they are the oldest ones in Germany. It is our responsibility to preserve our history in TV and Radio.
Regarding content storage… are you deploying an in-house solution or a cloud system, perhaps as a backup?
We run our archives ourselves. They are all here in Germany, with a backup, but we do not archive anything on the cloud outside of Germany.
Do you think that will be possible to complete a remote production with 5G? What do you think about cloud-based productions? Is something that could happen in the future?
First of all, remote production is a major topic for us. Just before the interview we were discussing the remote production that we have already realized during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. You can surely imagine how complicated it was to assure a reliable delivery of all the pictures the German viewers expected. We have organized the transmission of the World Championship in Russia already with remote production from many venues and it worked quite well. In the near future a special attention will certainly be paid to 5G in terms of distribution system and production. When the entire telecommunication technology will be based on 5G it will surely be of the utmost importance for us to have 5G as a main terrestrial distribution system. Since we have the duty to inform all people in Germany, it would be very useful to have 5G broadcast as one of the basic information and distribution system for our content. Cloud production too is very interesting for us, of course. However we are bound by various restrictions regarding the domicile of the cloud. It might look a bit complicated, but it will work for us. We have already done some tests with that.
Is Das Erste in a process of technological renovation? What will be the next technologies to be updated?
We are in an ongoing process, as you can surely imagine. With regard to innovation the most important issue for us now, is providing a video on demand system via Internet supported by a state-of-the-art technology. We now concentrate on the development of an appropriate design for our Mediathek.
What are the challenges that Das Erste and ARD must face in the coming years?
I have already mentioned, the first challenge is the entrance to the market for video on demand and the internet. Secondly, voice activated systems like Alexa, especially for our colleagues of the radio stations. And thirdly, it is essential for us to be available with our programs in any place wherever the viewer or the listener expect us. That is our duty, because we are publicly funded. At the same time it becomes increasingly difficult: the distribution markets are getting fragmented and there are more obstacles to reaching our users. For example: we had long negotiations with German cable operators about the financial regulations regarding the transmission our programs to our viewers and listeners.