ZDF’s record-breaking “The Swarm” shows public media innovation and value

13th March 2023
With the completion of its first season, ZDF’s Der Schwarm has amassed more than 18 million views online to become ZDFmediathek’s best streaming start since it was founded.
Der Schwarm promotion image.
The ZDF series highlight based on the bestseller by Frank Schätzing. The series was a coproduction between multiple European public service broadcasters. Copyright: ZDF/Staudinger + Franke

According to ZDF, Der Schwarm’s first two episodes alone reached nearly 2 million viewers online. The public broadcaster’s adaptation of the bestselling German novel of the same name (‘The Swarm’ in English) had already made history by being produced in English. The eight-part series was launched on the ZDF media library on 22 February and from 6-9 March on linear TV.

The series was also a success with its TV broadcasts, despite a significant slump in viewers after the first two episodes’ release – on 6 March, the first two episodes received 7.5 million viewers, while an average of 5.5 million viewers were reached across the series’ four consecutive evenings of airing at prime time.

Speaking on the series’ success, ZDF Programme Director Dr. Nadine Bilke said, “We are pleased that both ‘Der Schwarm’ and the accompanying documentaries are in such high demand in the media library and on TV. This shows us once again that sophisticated entertainment reaches the audience and that it is worthwhile to implement extraordinary projects together with international partners.”

Dr. Bilke is referring to the European Alliance – a joint initiative among public broadcasters ZDF, France Télévisions and Italy’s Rai. The Alliance is co-producing Der Schwarm alongside public broadcasters ORF in Austria and SRF in Switzerland, Scandinavia’s Nordic Entertainment Group, and Hulu Japan. As the commissioning broadcaster, ZDF is the lead on the venture. Der Schwarm is the Alliance’s largest co-production to date.

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. The series was dubbed for its German audience on two of its channels and offered subtitles on its video-on-demand service.

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Sabine Verheyen and Norbert Himmler in conversation.
Media policy event, Brussels March 1, 2023: Sabine Verheyen and Norbert Himmler Copyright: ZDF/Bernal Revert.
A collaborative public service innovation

The ambition in undertaking an international co-production on this scale truly sets Der Schwarm apart and demonstrates how public media are undertaking necessary innovation to adapt to changing markets and meet existing and emerging audience needs.

At an event before the series’ launch, ZDF Director General Dr. Norbert Himmler emphasised how the show was an “outstanding example of innovative fictional television”. He said, “ZDF is proud of to have played a leading role in driving this ambitious European co-production. The adaptation of ‘The Swarm’ shows: With the right partners, European productions are internationally competitive.”

Similarly, Sabine Verheyen, Member of the European Parliament and Chair of the Culture Committee, noted European cooperation in her speech: “‘Der Schwarm’ is an impressive example of a truly European production. The series shows that productions by broadcasters can keep up with global platforms. Our strength in Europe is cross-border cooperation, which is becoming increasingly important in international competition.”

“Sophisticated entertainment reaches the audience and … it is worthwhile to implement extraordinary projects together with international partners.” Dr. Nadine Bilke, ZDF Programme Director

Meanwhile, the series also demonstrates the value of entertainment in public service media.

“We can only strengthen and maintain broad social acceptance for contribution-financed public service broadcasting if the quality of the programme and the offers are convincing. I am convinced that Der Schwarm will be a great success that will convince the audience and is an example of the great importance of entertainment with a public service profile,” said the Minister President of Rhineland-Palatinate and Chairwoman of the Broadcasting Commission of the federal states, Malu Dreyer.

According to Dr. Himmler, “Der Schwarm is a strong example of how innovative, fictional television reaches people in a very unique, emotional way” while simultaneously targeting audiences who avoid educational formats and classic information. Notably, the series is accompanied by informative programmes on climate and marine research that explain the realities of the scenarios in the show, how swarm intelligence functions, and global solutions to saving the oceans. These accompanying documentaries are available both in the media library and via linear broadcasting.

As PMA will explore in more detail in an upcoming episode of our podcast, Media Uncovered, the arrival of global streaming giants has had serious repercussions for public broadcasters. One of the key questions it has raised has been over how PSM can continue to make top quality entertainment programme and remain competitive with the streamers. A cross-broadcaster collaboration such as ‘Der Schwarm’ is an original and successful example of how important collaboration is to meet this challenge.

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