ZDF makes history with English language adaptation

27 October 2021
Public media organisation ZDF’s adaptation of a bestselling German novel will be, in a first for the broadcaster, producein English. 
Making of "Der Schwarm". Credit: ZDF / Fabio Lovino

ZDF’s gaze is firmly set on international sales with its adaptation of Der Schwarm (The Swarm in English), a 2004 environmental event thriller written by German author Frank Schätzing. In a statement announcing the beginning of the show’s production, Dr. Norbert Himmler, ZDF’s Chief Creative Officer, said, “More than 15 years after the publication of The Swarm the ecological crisis is still one of the most pressing global challenges. Therefore, it is especially important for us to adapt this highly relevant topic for the screen as a major German-led international project.” 

The European Alliance – a joint initiative among public broadcasters ZDF, France Télévisions and Italy’s Rai – is co-producing The Swarm alongside public broadcasters ORF in Austria and SRF in Switzerland, Scandinavia’s Nordic Entertainment Group, and Hulu Japan. By originally commissioning the series, ZDF is the lead broadcaster on the venture.   

Dr. Himmler said The Swarm is the Alliance’s largest co-production to date. “[This unites] talent as well as expertise across national borders. Like the book, the series will hopefully entertain people around the world while also teaching all of us about our responsibilities.” 

The English language adaptation is a response to market changes brought on by streaming services and ZDF’s plan to significantly grow its international sales. ZDF will dub the show for its German audience on two of its channels and offer subtitles on its video-on-demand service. 

“A lot of broadcasters have realised that with the advent of streaming services, the kind of projects that they used to buy from the UK or America – the high-quality, high-production English-language series that were very important to a younger audience and a more international audience – they were no longer going to buy,” said Frank Doelger, an Emmy-winning producer of Game of Thrones who is executive producing The Swarm. He noted, for instance, that a Game of Thrones prequel will only appear on HBO’s subscription streaming service, a marked difference in approach from its predecessor which was sold to over 240 broadcasters globally.  

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Doelger also revealed that the BBC is in talks about purchasing the rights to the ZDF series. The Swarm highlights the importance of public media collaboration in meeting audience demands, in producing high quality and relevant dramas, and ultimately in driving public media competitiveness. The show will also reflect the increasing diversity in the scientific community through its cast – “which would have been unimaginable in 2004 when the novel was written,” Doelger said – a necessary undertaking of a public broadcaster that is meant to serve all in society.  

ZDF’s impact

The new project reaffirms ZDF Enterprises – the broadcaster’s international distribution company – role as one of the biggest producers in Europe. “Since ZDF has such a long and successful history as a broadcaster, ZDF Enterprises is able to access an extremely comprehensive collection of premium German language programs – a virtually inexhaustible pool that is extended each year by new productions with a value of over 300 million euros,” ZDF Enterprises reported.  

These assertions are backed up by a 2019 report from Ampere Analysis. The market research firm notes that German public broadcasters ZDF and ARD account for half of all investment in European programming, thereby setting the content agenda in the region’s biggest TV market. 

#TheSwarmIsComing German language poster for the ZDF series. Credit: ZDF / Julian R. Wagner / Leif Haenzo

The report revealed that ZDF is consistently one of the largest commissioners of content among public media in Europe, with 65 shows in development or production at the time. When it comes to European co-productions, ZDF is also a major contributor 

“Public-funded broadcasters, ARD and ZDF, spend the most on content out of the EU Big 5 public broadcasters with a combined spend exceeding €4bn in 2018. By comparison, The BBC accounts for just 17% of UK total content spend while Italy’s Rai accounts for 13% and Spain’s RTVE, 17% of total content investment. The only other major European market to come close is France, where France Télévisions accounts for 39% of all content investment in the country,” Ampere Analysis said. 


Featured image: #TheSwarmIsComing The ZDF series highlight based on the bestseller by Frank Schätzing. Credit: ZDF / Julian R. Wagner / Leif Haenzo