Tatort, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love German Television

(Tatort Intro)

Just a heads up: this post isn’t actually about Tatort itself

One of the biggest complaints I hear from other expats living Berlin is that German television sucks. I want to address that complaint.

When I first moved to Germany in 2005, I barely spoke any German. I’d learned some very basic stuff in a 100-level class at UVic, which basically meant I could count and understand simple apartment listings and restaurant menus. These things came in handy upon my arrival, but they didn’t leave much room to enjoy any entertainment. In my first few months here, I attended some German classes and met a lot of locals, which helped me improve my language skills. I was always told to watch TV to practice my language skills; however, we didn’t have DVB-T (digital antenna and receiver) in my WG. I got a USB DVB-T antenna towards the end of the summer of 2006 and entered the strange world of German TV.

At first, this world was somewhat of a novelty. Most of the programming seemed to consist of reruns from the ‘90s, and I was cool with that. I caught up on old episodes of “Step-by-Step”, “Home Improvement”, and “The Nanny” and I fully enjoyed it. I’d probably be embarrassed if I got caught watching any of those shows in English, but watching them in German somehow gave me the feeling that I was doing something intellectual. I moved to my own place that autumn and upgraded to a clunky old TV set from the 90s and a cheap DVB-T box and antenna.

However, after a while the novelty wore off and I became increasingly frustrated at the fact that German television seemed to comprise entirely of dubbed American shows from last season, terrible reality TV, and crime series. Up-to-date programs in their original versions or creative local programming seemed to be completely absent. Like many expats, I complained profusely.

Still, I continued to watch it. I found it helpful for learning German, especially as I lived alone and studied through a distance program in English. My daily German interactions were often short and limited, and television helped me practice and keep my skills up to date. For the most part, I stuck with American shows I knew and loved, such as “The Simpsons” and “The Big Bang Theory.” The ’90s reruns I loved seemed to disappear sometime over the course of 2007 and were replaced by an endless cycle of “How I Met Your Mother” and “Scrubs”, but I made do with what was available, all the while longing or the programming my friends back home enjoyed.

Sometime last year, something interesting happened. I stopped expecting German TV to be something it is not. In doing so, I learned to appreciate it. This change was largely due to the fact that I began a serious relationship with a German and through him, I discovered a wealth of programming that I had never considered. Television in Germany comprises more than just dubbed episodes of “Two and a Half Men” and reality shows about people with over-bleached hair; it includes many interesting and documentaries, shows, and films.

Many of these programs fill the gaping hole that the History Channel left when it started airing Ancient Aliens instead of shows about actual history. Although N24 seems to share the History Channel’s fascination with Hitler, Phoenix and Arte often broadcast interesting programs about various points in ancient and modern history. Once I stopped caring about watching classic movies in English, I found that there are quite a few available on free TV. And, although many people find that German-language serials and narrative programming leaves a lot to be desired, there are shows with good storylines out there.

German TV will never be American or British TV. Germans have a much different sense of humour than the British and public broadcasting budgets are stretched a lot thinner than they are in the UK. I don’t think private networks are capable of producing shows like “Game of Thrones” or “Breaking Bad”, as they simply lack the budgets and the audience to do so. On top of that, Germany is an aging country. The average public TV viewer is somewhere between 50 and 60 years old and private networks have considerable audiences of middle aged and older viewers. Still, the fact that German TV is different than English TV does not make it all bad. If you feel that it leaves something to be desired, I suggest you shake off your prejudices and give it a chance. You might just be surprised.

Just a little bit of fun before you go:


For readers outside of Germany: Tatort is a popular TV crime program produced by ARD. It airs every Sunday).

5 thoughts on “Tatort, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love German Television

  1. You are right concerning TV shows….there are only a few which are worth watching and they are certainly not big budget productions. The humour – well, I guess that one is hard to get for a foreigner. I agree that one area German programming is ahead is documentaries and similar. There is not much one can do wrong with the ZDF history channel. But there is one other area in which German TV is far, far ahead of other countries: Children’s programming. There is a myriad of smart shows which are especially produced for children – educational ones (lead by “Die Sendung mit der Maus”), but also shows which are so good that they are still fun to watch as an adult.

    1. I totally agree! I can’t believe I forgot about the wonderful children’s programs that are produced here. “Die Sendung mit der Maus” is fantastic, and “Löwenzahn” is one of my favourite German television shows across the board.

      1. I bet it is a good way for a foreigner to learn new words, since both shows are very careful of explaining unusual ones which children might not know yet.

        You know, you might want to look into German/Czech children series which where produced in the 1980s, as well as the Christmas Series….those are great! Nice little stories stretched over 6 to 12 episodes. (And certainly better than strange Christmas specials). It might be nostalgia, but they were so popular that they are available on DVD. Back then, they also produced multiple-parters for adults, which actually had a decent budget (the main reason they stopped doing it was because they became too expensive when interest waned). They tend to be very slow paced, though, so I guess the modern audience might have trouble with this kind of narration.

      2. I’ll have to take a look at some of those! I really love the Czech/German Märchen, “Drei Haselnüße für Aschenbrödel”, so I’d love to check out other productions. Do you have any title recommendations?

      3. For the Czech/German Productions my favourites were “Die Märchenbraut” (I actually did an article about this one in my blog), “Die Besucher” and “Luzie der Schrecken der Straße” (the latter two also have the advantage of also showing some really good Czech movie technique and animation for the time the shows were made…I am not sure if you are aware, but Czech stop motion animation used to be way ahead). But the other ones, like “Der fliegende Ferdinant” aso are certainly good two.
        For the Christmas series, here is a list: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weihnachtsserie
        My favs were “Anna” and “Patrick Pacard”, well, and “Nesthäkchen”, but I guess a lot of aspects in this one might be difficult to understand for a foreigner…I barely understood some of the social commentary in it as a child.
        And for good measure, here the “adventure four parter” they made for adults: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abenteuervierteiler
        I recommend “Lockruf des Goldes” and “Michael Strogoff”, but like I said, the pacing is someone one has to get used to.
        And if you love “Drei Haselnüsse für Aschebrödel”, you HAVE to take a look at their take on “Die kleine Meerjungfrau” – it is beautiful. Also on “Der Salzprinz” and “Der dritte Prinz”, but while those are good, they don’t come close to the poetic in the other two.

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