Bert Habets became Co-CEO of RTL Group in April 2017 and has been sole CEO since January 2018. We asked him about RTL Group’s financial performance in 2017, why RTL Group’s pioneering spirit is so important when it comes to accelerating its ‘Total Video’ strategy, and why European media policy is more important than ever.
How did RTL Group perform in 2017?
2017 was another very strong financial year – and this despite challenging TV advertising markets across our footprint. Even though revenue grew slightly less than expected – due only to negative exchange rate effects – we are once again reporting record results for revenue and EBITDA.
What does this mean for your shareholders?
Our results show once again that RTL Group is a healthy business. This gives us the room we need for both attractive dividends and continued investments. So we have decided to propose to the AGM a final dividend of €3.00 per share. Including the interim dividend, this brings us to a total dividend of €4.00 per share for the financial year 2017, and a dividend yield of 5.9 per cent.
What was behind the performance in 2017?
Both Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland and Groupe M6 significantly outperformed their respective TV advertising markets and increased their revenue, and there was a significant one-off effect from the sale of a building in France. Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland generated a record profit for the sixth consecutive year, while FremantleMedia significantly improved its profitability.
Let’s expand on those three profit centres one by one. How did the German TV business perform?
Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland continued its investment in local, exclusive programming and has made significant contributions to the creative industry, spending around €1 billion on content every year. One of the most popular launches in 2017 was the comedy series, Magda macht das schon, complementing a strong portfolio of local content – including Der Lehrer, one of RTL Television’s signature series. Vox continued its strong performance and has clearly evolved into a first-league channel in Germany, again ahead of ProSieben for total audience in 2017. RTL Plus is already the most popular of the recently launched channels in Germany and recorded the strongest growth of all channels in Germany. In digital, Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland grew its digital revenue significantly – also driven by the full-year consolidation of Smartclip.
In his first year as CEO of RTL Group, Bert Habets took the opportunity to meet and talk with colleagues from across the Group. Here with Nicolas de Tavernost, CEO and Chairman of the Management Board of Groupe M6
What about France?
Groupe M6 significantly outperformed the market and recorded excellent revenue growth. Reported EBITDA is down only because of a positive one-off effect in 2016 – without that, EBITDA would have been up by about 9 per cent. This underlines the strong operational performance of Groupe M6.
In October, we completed the regrouping of Groupe M6 and RTL Radio in France into one company, which makes us more competitive in the digital media world. This transaction opens a new, very promising chapter for our French TV and radio operations, as convergence and consolidation continue to shape our industry – not only in North America, but also across our European footprint.
Additionally, we are very happy about the development of the video-on-demand service 6play, which helped increase digital advertising revenue. And in early 2018, Groupe M6 signed new distribution agreements with all major distributors in France, which also helps to further diversify revenues.
How did FremantleMedia do?
FremantleMedia’s revenue was down, mainly due to negative exchange rate effects. This means in operational performance, the company has more than compensated for the loss of American Idol in 2017. EBITDA was up, and we saw a significant improvement of the EBITDA margin.
From a creative perspective, we saw more of FremantleMedia’s push into drama in 2017 – with The Young Pope on HBO, American Gods on Starz and Amazon Prime Video, and Charité on the German public channel Das Erste. And they all were recommissioned, which is exceptional in this business, where only hits are commissioned for a further season. There are even more shows currently in production – Deutschland 86, Picnic At Hanging Rock, Modus and My Brilliant Friend. Most recently Hard Sun premiered on the BBC in the UK.
Additionally, American Idol has now returned to US screens on ABC – a ratings juggernaut that will benefit FremantleMedia financially in future. The show launched in March 2018 and judging by the first audience figures, I believe it’s fair to say that American Idol is still going strong.
What are your plans for RTL Group now?
We are in a strong position to write the next chapter in RTL Group’s success story, across broadcast, content and digital. We have a highly profitable, cash-generating core business in TV broadcasting. FremantleMedia has successfully branched out into scripted drama. And in digital video, we are among the leaders in ad tech and in the growing ecosystem for short-form online video on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. In a nutshell: we have the power and platforms to accelerate our Total Video strategy.
To succeed in this, we have to go back to our roots, to re-invigorate RTL’s pioneering spirit – one of taking calculated risks, putting the consumer first, maximising the time they spend with our content, and sharing best practices and business opportunities across our business.
What’s in this next chapter?
Our industry is becoming more and more complex and the media landscape increasingly fragmented. With digitisation, consumer behaviour keeps changing at a staggering pace.
And these are the key trends: the younger the target group, the higher the share of non-linear viewing and of viewing on mobile devices. At the same time, many non-linear viewers are demanding high-end drama, and are increasingly willing to pay for it. There are simple reasons for this: streaming services offer a new seamless, tailored viewing experience and much more attractive price points for their pay offers. This is especially the case in countries with high pay-TV penetration and high prices for premium pay-TV – which explains the strong growth of streaming services around the globe.
“State-of-the-art technology and big data are key elements of all successful business models in the digital media world” – Bert Habets speaking at Dmexco 2017 in Cologne
What is RTL Group’s response to these changes?
Consumers no longer care where they watch our content, so why should we still draw strict lines between linear and non-linear, offline and online? Therefore, our next generation of TV will bring our linear TV channels and on-demand services much closer together. Catch-up TV is yesterday’s terminology – it’s no longer a mere ‘add-on’ to linear channels.
There is a European market for on-demand platforms with a clear focus on local, exclusive content. We will therefore increase our investment in our video-on-demand services – or VOD services in short – in countries where we have strong families of linear TV channels, and focus on long-form content. Here we will gradually adopt a hybrid model – combining a free, advertising-financed service with a premium pay product.
Can you tell us more about this hybrid model?
Our well-established VOD platforms, such as TV Now in Germany, offer content from our TV channels and are mainly financed by advertising. We will enhance them with a premium offer, combining our own content and licensed third-party content, in HD or Ultra HD. We will build our marketing around a content schedule, so we can make the most of our flagship productions, primarily based on exclusive, local content. These flagship productions are key to gaining and retaining subscribers and building the brand of such a service. The free VOD services will serve as promotion platforms and will enable the upselling to our subscription-funded VOD services.
With our Dutch SVOD service, Videoland, we have already gained experience in designing and maintaining these direct-to-consumer offers – creating a strong user experience and offering exclusive Dutch content. In 2017, Videoland reported strong subscriber growth of 78 per cent.
In France, 6play from Groupe M6 is a purely advertising-financed service. With an excellent user experience and customisation features, it now has more than 20 million registered users. During 2018 we will introduce new VOD services in Belgium, Hungary and Croatia – all based on the 6play platform. This is the kind of cooperation that works across RTL Group.
Local, exclusive content has defined the roots of our success in the free-to-air business and will remain an important long-term USP. It's the reason we reach millions of viewers a day, and our key differentiator with global players. This is why we will further increase our investments in local content across all major genres: scripted, entertainment, factual, news and information, and digital-first content.
Exclusive local content on all platforms – is that what you mean by Total Video?
Our Total Video strategy means maximising consumers’ attention to all of our video offers, across all platforms and devices – linear TV channels, our content business, our VOD services, and our multi-platform networks, or MPNs, such as BBTV, StyleHaul, Divimove, and United Screens. For the MPNs, 2017 was challenging in light of the continued discussions on brand-safe environments for advertisers. We are addressing these problems and are determined to continue developing this business.
Why is the MPN business important for your Total Video strategy?
For us and our advertising clients, young people are a key audience and they have massively adopted short-form online video, with a growing consumer base – especially on mobile.
In addition, advertising revenues in the YouTube ecosystem continue to grow dynamically, despite brand safety issues.
What’s more, MPNs have become a global business where scale matters. They also complement our families of channels. We’ve developed strong positions with our investments and are well positioned to grow this business significantly.
But how can RTL Group – as a traditionally decentralised company – sell advertising on an international level?
Traditionally, TV advertising has been sold at a national level. But more and more global advertisers see Europe now as one region – and together with media agencies they have shifted to a more centralised media buying for this one region.
RTL AdConnect, our international sales house, is our response to this. We are investing in the company to provide international advertisers with simple access to our large portfolio – our families of channels, our on-demand services and our MPNs. All of this in a brand-safe environment. We can offer this access either through direct sales or programmatically using a unified booking tool.
So, advertising is, and will remain, our most important revenue stream. As consumers and advertisers distinguish less and less between traditional TV and non-traditional, we want to control our own destiny in ad sales.
Is this why you invested in advertising technology?
I see a lot of potential in expanding and strengthening the data and technology-based competencies we have in digital video monetisation. It has become an additional success factor in the business.
We have an ambitious growth plan for our ad-tech businesses – combining SpotX and Smartclip and rolling out their platform across all units, and investing in product development, partnerships and further acquisitions. As online video advertising is maturing and finding its way to the main screen in the viewers’ living rooms, we are building the next generation of solutions. By collaborating with our portfolio of investments, like Clypd and Videoamp, advertising clients will benefit from more data-driven and impactful advertising products.
Our vision is to create an independent, global monetisation platform for video – a large, innovative, customer-friendly alternative for publishers. With the combination of SpotX and Smartclip plus RTL AdConnect our solutions are already up and running.
Data is key to offer these solutions. The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect in May 2018. What does that mean for RTL Group?
We make a clear promise to all our customers and viewers that we offer a very high level of protection of their personal data. In the light of GDPR, we have invested significantly to rebuild our data collection, storage and analysis for our on-demand services.
Unfortunately, the gap between data available to the US giants and European media companies is already huge. Closing it will be difficult, in particular with additional, highly complex regulations coming up.
You mean the ePrivacy regulation?
Yes, the proposed European Commission measures pose a serious risk to our digital media services. For example, the proposal prohibits the installation of cookies with very limited exceptions, which mainly include consent of the user. However, such a consent-only regime for data collection and processing would restrict our ability to sell online advertising on open marketplaces and would harm our online ad revenues and ad-tech business.
Even worse, the US platforms – which already collect by far the most data on European citizens – would be the big winners as they have built huge log-in communities. The introduction of ePrivacy would therefore accelerate the duopoly of Facebook and Google in online advertising. Besides the economic impact, it also creates a significant political and cultural risk.
What do you mean by that?
The ePrivacy regulation in its current form might drive even more traffic to the US platforms, with all the vulnerabilities of their algorithms for fake news and manipulation.
I believe we are all still a bit shocked about what happened during the 2016 presidential election campaign in the US. The indictment by FBI Special Counsel Robert Mueller details over 37 pages how the Russians turned to social media to sow discord in the population by creating Facebook groups, distributing divisive ads and posting inflammatory images. This is a highly disturbing read.
Do we really think this is impossible in Europe? Radical, anti-Western parties across the continent already exploit the big social networks to spread their messages. These movements will happily embrace any regulation that would drive even more traffic to the social networks – and away from independent journalism. Unfortunately, ePrivacy in its current form would do exactly that… against the original intention of the lawmakers.
How does this affect a company like RTL Group?
We are that independent journalism. We are not in the business of lecturing our viewers and listeners, but we do take their concerns very seriously. Our main channels target the general public – including people with little or no interest in politics. So we know we have a special responsibility to report truthfully and in balance on important topics, and we embrace it. For instance, we have an international verification team that checks if user-generated videos or photos coming from social networks or sent to our newsrooms are accurate. We are truly independent from any party or political movement. ‘Always close to the audience’ is, and always will be, one of our key missions at RTL Group.
Comprehensive news reporting and editorial independence have always formed an integral part of our programming strategy – in all the countries we operate in.
Bert Habets with Bernd Reichart,
Managing Director of Vox
One final question: what are the essential criteria for the success of RTL Group?
I believe we need to shake things up! We can only achieve this by attracting and retaining the best people. This is more important than ever – across all divisions and functions of our business. I admit that competition for the best talent is tough and demanding. It includes many aspects such as promoting young talent to management positions early on, diversity, fostering internal mobility across our business units… and giving pioneers the freedom to operate and experiment. In other words, we should always strive to be the partner of choice for talent – for journalists, actors and content makers, for scriptwriters, techies and start-up entrepreneurs, and of course for the young video talent we service with our multi-platform networks.
In a nutshell: creativity, consumer, technology, and talent – if we all pull together in these four areas, I am profoundly convinced we will reinvigorate the RTL pioneering spirit and take our Group to the next level.
Melanie Okamuro started out working as an analyst for the business intelligence team at StyleHaul. Before long, the fashion-forward businesswoman with a knack for programming moved into a project management role, drawing up plans for the look and feel of the mobile version of the company’s main organisational platform – StyleHaul Society – along the way.
Designed to coordinate social marketing campaigns, the Society platform allows StyleHaul to work with industry-leading brands and influencers to execute data-driven campaigns. “Running a campaign can be complex,” says Melanie. “Without Society, our team would spend more time running processes manually.”
She loves the office’s super creative, anything-goes dress code, puppy-friendly policies, and karaoke machine for those late nights. “It’s unconventional and unique here,” she says, adding, “Everyone has their own style. I think it really encourages creativity, and allows for an open, flat work culture.”
RTL Group’s acquisition of StyleHaul reinforced its presence in the online fashion, beauty and lifestyle sector – while giving RTL Group companies a chance to work with a white-labelled Society platform for their own highly-targeted online advertising campaigns.
When Jan Wachtel joined Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland from Europe’s biggest daily news publisher Bild in 2017, the transition between industries was easy: the connection is digital and everyone in Cologne helped him settle in quickly.
His mission? To create products that customers love, which represent Mediengruppe RTL’s great content in the best way. One of them is building a state-of-the-art user experience for TV Now. The company’s video on demand (VOD) platform is not just a service for the TV audience. “TV Now needs to be more. We want to get broader and broader content-wise, but also from a product perspective.” To achieve this, a good team is everything. “We cannot be afraid of taking risks and making decisions. That’s the foundation of building successful digital products.”
Jan is always connected, but he also knows how to unwind: “Sometimes it’s good to not think about your job and go surfing – and after that you have some really good ideas.”
Ploughing through scripts, shows, series and movies is every content-junkie’s dream job. Ellen and her team do that all day, every day to select the best for fans of RTL Nederland’s subscription video on demand (SVOD) platform Videoland. “It’s important to surprise our customer,” Ellen explains. When it comes to video, the Netherlands is competitive – something Ellen sees as a plus. “A challenging market is also a very dynamic market,” she says.
The secret to Videoland’s growth? Thinking globally, acting locally: “We focus on the Dutch market and Dutch content – that’s the one big thing that sets us apart.” Ellen shares RTL Nederland’s ‘let’s make it happen’ attitude, and prefers trying things out to sitting around and talking about it.
At the end of the day, though, it all comes down to great programming: “It’s important to have passion in your job, otherwise it would be hard to walk the extra mile,” she says. Or, as the Aristotelian saying Ellen had engraved in the ring on her finger puts it, “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.”
When Patrick Franz enters the room, you know it: suddenly, things just seem like a lot more fun. Tall and outgoing, with a ready smile, Patrick exudes a can-do spirit that is both reassuring and energising. These qualities, it turns out, are all-important in his ever-evolving job at Europe’s largest online video company Divimove as Senior Influencer Marketeer.
“My job is basically to take care of our influencers,” Patrick explains. This might mean booking interviews and fan meet-ups for a preteen social media celebrity at Europe’s largest YouTuber festival, Videodays – which Divimove acquired last year. But Patrick’s job doesn’t end there: the Senior Influencer Marketeer will also accompany his partners to the festival, which draws some 15,000 visitors, and help guide them through the jam-packed two days. “I’ll say, ‘ok,’ it’s time to wrap up this interview,’ or, ‘let’s break for lunch,’” Patrick says. “A lot of social media celebrities are really young, and it can be kind of overwhelming.”
Patrick knows what it’s like to be onstage, himself: he used to play in a band. But, he says, even as a kid, he wanted to be an artist manager. “That’s even what I told my parents,” he remembers, with a laugh. So when he found this job at Divimove, he was thrilled. Now, he’s found that working behind the scenes for social influencers suits him perfectly. “I’m glad I can walk down the street without being recognised.”
His role at Divimove also includes brainstorming with influencers, to help them grow. He set up one talent, Sally. She runs Germany’s largest food channel on YouTube and recently launched her own TV show on Vox, which is part of Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland. All in one, he enables his partnered social influencers to turn their passion into a profession. With others, he might give advice as to whether an marketing opportunity will be good for their brand in the long-term, or help them get in touch with a company whose products they like so much they would like to feature them. “The personal relationship is really important,” Patrick explains. “You need trust, because you work together a lot.”
One thing he loves about his job is how quickly it is changing, as digital media develops in leaps and bounds. “That YouTubers need proper management — it’s pretty new,” he says. “You kind of explore together.”
When identifying new potential influencers, Patrick says there are a few must-haves: “You need personality, passion, and a sure feeling for good content.”
Daria Caraway loves a challenge. That’s why the software developer is so happy working with SpotX’s online video advertising platform. There, she and her team puzzle out problems using technologies that didn’t even exist six months ago. “One of the coolest things about technology is that it’s always changing,” she says. “You’re always preparing for a future you can’t predict.”
Daria, who grew up around computers, likes the office’s collaborative atmosphere – and open-floor plan, which makes it easy to ask colleagues for input on the fly. And RTL Group is all about collaboration – to create a global, independent monetisation platform for broadcasters, video-on-demand services and publishers, the company decided to combine its ad-tech companies, SpotX and Smartclip, into one, integrated company.
In Daria’s own words – a first-person narrative:
I’ve always been close to technology – both my parents were computer engineers, on the hardware side of things. So we always had the latest and greatest computers.
I liked the idea of working in tech, but until college, I thought I wanted to be on the business side of things. I got into a dual degree programme: computer science and business. I ended up falling in love with computer science.
Now, I’m only two years out of college, so this is my first real industry job. I’ve been here for…two years and three days (laughs).
At SpotX, we build a full-service video advertising platform. We have many pieces to that platform, but I specifically work on the tools that allow publishers to create advertising campaigns to monetise their video content, and then analyse the performance of those campaigns. A video publisher, for example, could come to us and say, ‘I want this url or that soft drink to go online at this time on this date in this spot.’ Later, they could come to their SpotX dashboard and check on the performance of that ad spot.On top of allowing advertisers to set up deals, our website gives them control of their ‘Dashboard,’ so they can see how much money they’re making with each ad.
I build the website. It’s challenging, which makes it interesting.
One of the coolest things about technology is that it is always changing. Then, it’s always a challenge to keep up with technology – newer tools come out all the time, and they’re better suited for what we’re doing, but you can’t always switch everything over. You’re always preparing for a future you can’t predict.
I basically signed up my life for tackling interesting challenges, using very interesting technologies that didn’t exist – and we had no idea they would – six or seven months ago.
Day-to-day I don’t think of myself as a woman in the field. I just go about my life. In my formal career this has been less so – but in general, in science and tech, if you’re a woman people often underestimate you. But I kind of enjoy it because I can prove them wrong. I tend to surprise them.
I think the tech industry in general – and definitely SpotX – is making a shift towards inclusivity. Being a woman in this time is exciting, because I can be a part of that and make an impact. The cool thing about working with such a diverse group of people – in terms of race and gender and age – is that everyone brings a different perspective.
Our office is definitely collaborative. There are no cubicles, we can see each other and, you know, throw things at each other. If I have a question, I can just walk over and everyone will almost always drop everything to answer it. A collaborative environment is really huge – you can’t do this kind of work alone. Nobody can.
In this career, you get to solve puzzles all day long. That’s the coolest part for me.
Building a slate of scripted content for the local market keeps Hauke Bartel and Philipp Steffens busy. Along with their teams, they are responsible for fiction programming at Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland’s biggest channels: RTL Television and Vox. “It’s a great time for German drama. There is a huge appetite for new shows,” says Hauke.
But creating the next big hit is a challenging task, especially with all the new kids on the block. “We live in a time of excellence, and every show you create has to be tailor-made for the audience,” says Philipp and adds “The market is so vivid – everybody is open to trying out new things.” And this openness is something they value and empower within their teams. “A great creative team consists of people who share the same values, but have different personal taste,” Hauke explains. They both agree that at the end of the day, it’s about making great television. “RTL was founded by programme lovers – you can still feel that every day. People have new ideas and want to make them work. And that really excites me,” says Philipp.
When Monica Semedo hosted her first TV show at the age of 11, it was all a hobby. Twenty-two years later, it is more than a hobby and she is still passionate about her job as Journalist and TV Presenter at RTL Télé Lëtzebuerg. Her energetic personality, big smile and charisma immediately captivates you. “I have always been an entertainer – it’s in my blood.”
What she likes most about her job are the people she works with. “I enjoy to meet new people and listen to their stories,” Monica says, adding that in her job, you have to be open-minded and spontaneous. “It never gets boring. You always have to expect the unexpected. You really grow with your challenges.”
When Benny Arbel and Dana Porter looked into virtual reality (VR) technology two years ago, the Israeli entrepreneurs had their ‘ah-ha’ moment: this was not just a new platform, but a new medium. The two co-founded Inception in Tel Aviv, together with visual effects guru, Effi Wizen, and tech evangelist, Nitzan Shenar.
The hard-charging VR start-up immediately set to work producing globe-spanning VR projects that give viewers a chance to visit a Colombian coffee plantation, dance in a Berlin nightclub and even wander into a painting by Salvador Dali. The team also pushes the boundaries with augmented reality (AR) projects that bring a new layer to the world around us. No wonder, then, that they caught the attention of RTL Group, which was looking to augment its Total Video universe with this new medium – and, with its investment in Inception, now holds a minority stake of 15.01 per cent in the virtual reality company. “With RTL Group, we feel we’re part of something bigger,” says Benny.
For starters – what is Virtual Reality (VR)?
Benny: Virtual reality is part of a broader family of Extended Reality products which include both Augmented and Virtual reality. VR takes viewers to places that they could not have gone otherwise, while AR overlays additional dimensions on top of our reality. The market is heating up for both with over one billion AR enabled devices expected by the end of the year as well as 100 million VR headsets.
Dana: The promise of VR is that it gives you the feeling you were there. For example, we have one tour that lets you actually visit the Dali museum in Spain.. Not everybody can afford to or has the time to go to a Dali museum in Spain, but with VR, you can not only visit it but you can actually enter the painting itself.
How does a project like that work?
Benny: Immersive technologies are a new medium and as such require a different kind of creative language, just like the move from theatre to film required a new language. Our creative people say, ‘wouldn’t it be great if--?’ Then together with the technical people we make it happen leveraging the best technology.
Dana: We were founded by a mix of creative people and tech people including visual effects guru Effi Wizen, and tech evangelist Nitzan Shenar. That’s our competitive edge – “tech meets creative.” And this allows us to bring the best solutions to the market.
So in the future, are we going to watch soccer games from the middle of the field?
Benny: (laughs). Why not? The possibilities are endless. For example, if you have Deutschland sucht den Superstar, why not allow people at home to get a sense of what it feels like to see the show from onstage, and behind the stage? VR and AR will be natural extensions of the TV experience.
Dana: Imagine if you could have a seat next to the judges on American Idol, they could turn to you and say, ‘what do you think?” And this is just the beginning. We will start seeing formats tailored specifically for these new mediums.
And what about advertising? How will VR change that field?
Benny: Brands and corporations are excited about VR and AR – our business is not just B2C but also B2B. For example, we work with a coffee chain that is going to start selling capsules, to compete with Nestlé. We created a tour through coffee plantations in Colombia, showing what’s unique about the elements in their coffee. Then we put headsets in coffee shops – so whileyou’re waiting for your coffee, you can take a VR tour and connect with the story of the brand in a more meaningful and memorable way.
You’re based in Tel Aviv. Could you talk about the start-up scene there?
Benny: In Israel, tech is in our DNA. For years now, the joke is that Jewish moms don’t want their kids to be doctors or lawyers but software engineers. We lack natural resources, so there was a government push to encourage technology innovation. Today, Tel Aviv is very similar to Silicon Valley in the scale of startups and the ecosystem – that’s our inspiration. We also have offices in NY and London so overall we feel like we have a great balance of talent.
What’s your company culture like?
Benny: Companies often say to an employee, ‘draw a tree.’ The person drawing it doesn’t know how it fits into the bigger picture. For me, it’s important that everyone knows how their work fits into the overall strategy, and how it helps make the company successful. For example, we had a project for Cisco where we installed VR on travelators – you know, those moving sidewalks – like they have in the airports. People stepped onto the travelator, and put on headsets. Then, they could immerse themselves in a futuristic city, as imagined by Cisco. The people at our company who took part in the project were there from the first creative idea to watching it roll out to tens of thousands of people.
Does being part of RTL Group give you an added sense of security?
Benny: In this business, we need to disrupt every day — so security is not the first word that springs to mind. But we’re extremely welcome by RTL Group, they treat us as part of the family. From day one, we’ve been part of every relevant discussion and we feel there are lots of collaborations ahead. We definitely have the feeling we’re part of something bigger.
Lorenzo Mieli’s groundbreaking works are inspired by everything: books, television, newspapers, his kids, the judges on Italy’s X Factor. As CEO of the Rome-based Italian television and feature film producer Wildside, Lorenzo calls on his close-knit team of novelists, journalists, documentary makers and television writers to transform these ideas into the kind of Total Video that, like Italian cinema of the 1970s, breaks all the rules to reinvent the genre.
Recent projects include the hugely successful, Golden Globe-nominated series The Young Pope, which stars Jude Law and Diane Keaton, and is now heading into a second season. FremantleMedia’s investment in Wildside – where it holds a 62.5 per cent stake – is part of the media company’s commitment to extend its global family by investing heavily in high-quality, home-grown production companies. This, Lorenzo explains, is good for everyone: “There’s a translation process from FremantleMedia to RTL that makes our perspective and our target ambition bigger every time.”
As a kid, you watched a lot of TV – five hours a day?
Lorenzo: Yes! On that strange box, you could watch a movie, then a game show, then a scripted series, then the news. The reason I was mesmerised for five hours was the flow of messages: how they work, how there was an association between them. Every vision was influenced by what I had watched before.
This was reflected when I started to do my job. I was interested in everything. I wanted to do everything. I was inspired by everything.
How do you get inspired?
Lorenzo: I get inspired by something I read, let’s say, in the news. The idea keeps this footprint – where it starts. Then, I imagine putting this content in different boxes.
So a news story might turn into fiction?
Lorenzo: Exactly. Three years ago, for example, together with a journalist who works with me, we made a documentary. It was about a British teenager who learned that her father was the seventh son of a mafia boss in Italy. So she flew to Italy, and became a criminal. This story stayed on my mind for years – until I decided to make it into a scripted series. This is the same content concept – to flow from one box to another.
This is something I also do with people. If someone is making documentaries, I try to force him to write fiction stories. Ten years ago, we made a documentary about Italy in the 90s. It was a time of upheaval. Five years later, we transformed the same content into the Italian drama series 1992.
Ah, so this works with people, too?
Lorenzo: A very important part of my job is choosing people to work with. When I decided to ask Paolo Sorrentino, a very important movie director, who is not a TV lover, to work with us, I convinced him to do a TV show. Because I thought his story telling would be disruptive, and relevant, in a landscape that is moving from movies to scripted TV as a major story-telling format.
You also did something similar with Italy’s Got Talent.
Lorenzo: (Laughs). Yes, there I took a journalist, a real intellectual – he’s also a history teacher – and made him the head of Italy’s Got Talent. When I decided this, everyone was really afraid of putting someone who didn’t come from entertainment in charge of the most entertaining show in our lineup.
Sounds risky! What made you do it?
Lorenzo: I hoped it would disrupt everything, and that’s completely what happened. Italy’s Got Talent became very avant-garde.
The Young Pope, which stars Jude Law and Diane Keaton, and is now heading into a second season, how did this project come about?
Lorenzo: I thought, we need to do what independent Italian directors did in the 1970s. They reinvented cinema by changing all the rules. Why not change and adapt to a television model?
So you asked Sorrentino to direct.
Lorenzo: I thought, in TV, he will for sure do something to change the rules.
It seems you were right – The Young Pope is a hit! Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to be part of FremantleMedia and RTL Group?
Lorenzo: Fremantle, RTL, Bertelsmann: these are all really different boxes. Moving from one box to the next, it makes our perspective and our target ambition bigger every time.
It makes me think of Russian nesting dolls.
Lorenzo: (laughs). They are one of my favorite objects, actually.
You’ve got a very tight-knit group, at Wildside.
Lorenzo: All the television writers, novelists and documentary producers – most of them, we grew up together. We work together every day. It’s a mix of a family and a class in school.
So, after all this time, how do you keep the ideas coming?
Lorenzo: (laughs) Actually, I’m trying to learn the opposite – not to do too many things.
The ideas that get made – it has to do with how long they live in my head. If the idea dies after a few weeks or months, then I can pass. The projects I try to develop are the ones that are still in my mind after years and years.
When American Idol went off air in 2016, the pioneering show had 12.5 million fans on Facebook – and they’ve kept following the show, ever since. Now, these devoted viewers get their wish: in 2017, FremantleMedia struck a deal with ABC to bring back the world’s biggest singing competition.
Relying on years of experience and sheer gut instinct, FremantleMedia North America lined up a stellar judges panel and an up-to-the-minute digital strategy that includes tons of behind-the-scenes extras. “It’s not just a show – it’s a digital strategy,” explains Trish. Jennifer adds: “Digitisation is exciting. We experiment, and try new things to see what’s working well.” The hard-working, risk-taking Los Angeles-based company scoured the country to find great contestants – including a young talent who was born the day the show first launched. “It’s simple, actually – a Cinderella story, where through the process of taking part in American Idol, contestants have a real chance at a superstar career,” says Trish.
So, the big news is that American Idol has come back. Are you excited?
Trish: We’re really, really excited. We’ve got great new judges. And you know, putting together a panel is tricky. You’ve got to have credibility – viewers expect the judges to have had a great career – and they have to get on well together.
That does sound tricky. How do you do it?
Trish: You have to rely on your instinct, your gut knowledge. It’s like casting a family – laughs. That’s actually how it’s worked out: Lionel Richie, with his incredible history as a singer, songwriter, record producer – he’s found himself as the ‘dad.’ Luke Bryan and Katy Perry are kind of the naughty children, then you have Lionel saying, ‘Come on, now, let’s concentrate.’
You know, you have the experience of having done it before, but you don’t really know until they all sit down at the table together how the chemistry will be.
Could you talk a bit about what’s special about the American Idol format?
Jennifer: It’s simple. Any successful show has simplicity at its core. I’m not a fan of bells and whistles, and Idol is really a simple Cinderella story. Through the process of taking part in the show, contestants have a real chance at a superstar career. Just look at Kelly Clarkson.
What’s your digital strategy for American Idol?
Trish: These days, you have got to give viewers access whenever they want it. That means, for example, that we publish on Facebook every day of the week — not just when the show’s happening.
You know, American Idol has always been really good at keeping up with technology. Around here we like to say that Ryan Seacrest taught America how to text. Remember? He stood there, on television, and explained how to use a phone to text in your vote. ‘Push this button, then this button.’
It’s easy to forget, but technology changed a lot since American Idol launched.
Trish: Right. It was only 15 years ago – but there was none of this technology we have now. These days, for example, a lot of the kids’ performances are up on YouTube. When we look for contestants, we also look there.
On the other side, we give viewers a lot of extras. ‘Behind the scenes with the judges.’ ‘Judge’s dressing rooms.’ ‘Overheard at Hollywood week.’ We have pre-show clips, after-show clips. It’s not just a show, it’s a digital strategy.
Jennifer: Digitisation is exciting. It’s a rapidly changing experiment, where we try new things, see what’s working well, and have fun.
Trish: There’s a really direct engagement with audience.
What do you think is an important attitude to have, when working in the TV industry?
Jennifer: We want to make sure we have a really creative environment, so that fantastic, talented people want to come work with us. Really talented people have a lot of choice. So we need to show them they are going to be supported here, they will have plenty of freedom. This has to be an exciting place to work.
What’s the secret to FremantleMedia North America’s success?
Jennifer: We like independent thinkers, diversity, and a lot of different ideas.
Trish: You know, it’s about individuals. Sure, some of this is written in the HR handbook. But it’s also about the personal qualities of the leadership of the company. It’s about having people who want to work this way.
What about taking risks?
Jennifer: Any new show is a risk. Going into it you don’t know if it’s going to be successful. Yes, you have instincts and experience, but everything we do has risk attached to it.
Trish: We never rest on success. We are always building on it. We always ask ourselves, ‘What more can we be doing?’
United Screens launched in Stockholm with one goal: to be the good guys spearheading the shift to online video. To accomplish this, they meet each of the Nordic YouTubers, creators and influencers they work with in person. And, with their ‘play fair’ philosophy, in just a few short years they’ve managed to corner the young demographic that has already made the switch to watching video digitally in this early-adopting part of the world. United Screens isn’t surprised by the demand for online video they’ve encountered – “it’s cold and dark here, so we need entertainment” – but RTL Group was impressed.
With its full acquisition of the scrappy, ideas-driven start-up, RTL Group continues to expand its footprint as a global leader in online video. CEO, Malte Andreasson, is pleased: “With RTL Group, suddenly we have all these siblings, with great networks. It opens up a lot of possibilities.”
When United Screens’ Co-Founder Malte Andreasson describes their Stockholm headquarters offices, he laughs: “It’s in a basement, the lighting is bad, the furniture is shoddy. It’s very start-uppy,” he says. CCO Nicole Haman adds, “We could have better furniture if we weren’t so generous with commissions for our partners.”
This encapsulates the multi-platform network’s ethos: be the good guys. In addition to budget-friendly furniture, this means providing their creators – YouTubers, influencers, artists – with reliable contacts to answer questions, as well as transparent information about online-generated income, expertise in realms like managing digital rights, and, perhaps most importantly of all, open contracts. “Our creators can leave anytime,” says Malte and adds “We believe we should work hard to deserve their love.”
This progressivism was built into the company’s DNA, from the beginning. Founded in the autumn of 2013, United Screens tapped into a market revolution that, in the early-adopting Nordic region, was already further along than just about any other place in the world – it’s no accident, Nicole points out, that the world’s biggest YouTuber is Swedish. “At the time, I was working in commercial television as Director of scheduling,” remembers Malte and continues “I could see so clearly that the business was stagnating. At the same time, something really big was growing up next to us.”
“Digital has really come far in the Nordics,” Malte highlights and says “Today, most of the population has all the technology they need to watch video any way they like.”
This is especially true for young people – a group brands reach through United Screens’ online advertising arm. “Our demographic is super strong,” says Malte. “15 to 44 – exactly the age group that is shifting from traditional media.”
The company was thrilled to be acquired by RTL Group earlier this year, says Nicole. “With RTL, at the first meeting, they literally filled in our sentences. It was like, wow! You are like us, when can we start working together?”
Being part of the RTL Group family opened up a lot of new possibilities, Malte and his colleagues highlight: “With RTL Group, suddenly we have all these siblings, with great networks. We’re in touch with Divimove, and talking to FremantleMedia.”
“I love the way they are collaborative,” says Nicole, referring to RTL Group. “How open they are listening to us.”
United Screens plans to hang on to the start-up mentality that has made them so flexible and agile, thus far. As the company charts entirely new digital territory, the ability to take risks – like including a green room that’s open to the public at their offices – so far, only one person has tried to set off fireworks while filming there – has been paramount. They’re also dedicated to trying new things – from Malte’s groundbreaking idea four years ago to start a pregnancy channel, to a current campaign aimed at getting teenaged girls into tech. “This is a new market, and we are very much part of building it up,” says Malte. “We are paving our own way, and when we succeed, we are the first.”
2017 marked the 100-year anniversary of Germany’s UFA television and film production company – and a full quarter of a century on-air for UFA’s longest-running daily TV series, Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten (GZSZ). For Executive Producer Petra Kolle, there’s never been a better time. “Everything is like I wanted it, always,” she says, of the show she first started working for in 1995. In addition to great ratings and strong institutional backing, she explains, GZSZ has an unbeatable production team: “I’ve worked with many good teams, but this team at the moment is so brilliant I can’t even in my daydreams imagine a better one.”
It’s this standard of excellence that keeps the show constantly evolving, says long-time GZSZ actress Ulrike Frank, who plays the role of Katrin Flemming in the series. It also makes GZSZ a great place to work: “When everyone is really good at their job, you can work hard and have fun,” Ulrike says. Talent, craft and passion are musts for anyone working on a show that creates 6,300 minutes of fictional screen time each year. But, adds Petra, there’s one more crucial element: “The most important thing is to have nice people around you.”
“RTL Group’s culture has always been to foster entrepreneurship, plus a lot of autonomy. I definitely feel that.” In more than two decades with RTL Group, Stéphane Coruble has always loved just how multicultural his work has been. Now, as Managing Director of RTL AdConnect, he puts this passion to work providing local expertise to advertisers looking to run campaigns across multiple countries.
With its huge reach and depth of experience, RTL AdConnect is able to negotiate local laws and cultures to deliver a truly global message. As the world becomes increasingly complex, says Stéphane, one of the most important factors in RTL AdConnect’s success is the ability to listen – to the people working within the business around the world, and those outside.
What do consumers in each of the local markets the company works with really want? One recent success story demonstrates how effective this approach is: RTL AdConnect’s new Total Video Marketplace, which grants advertisers and agencies direct and exclusive access to the company’s pan-European digital portfolio. “We can provide clients with advertising campaigns across countries – it’s one stop-shopping, in a brand-safe environment,” says Stéphane.
What does it take to be a one-stop shop for running advertising campaigns across multiple platforms, in every European country? “A global vision, combined with a lot of local know-how,” says Stéphane Coruble, Managing Director at RTL AdConnect – the international sales arm of RTL Group.
Take the recent ad campaign RTL AdConnect delivered for lastminute.com in the UK and France. First, RTL AdConnect decided to match the online travel retailer with FremantleMedia’s Got Talent formats in each region. Then came the tricky part: “In the UK, we totally integrated the campaign into the show,” explains Stéphane and adds “but in France, that’s prohibited by law.”
So, RTL AdConnect had to think creatively. In France, they filmed TV ads for lastminute.com that featured the host of France a un incroyable talent. Then, they ran them during commercial breaks – giving the French ad campaign the same look and feel as its UK counterpart. “The implementation was totally different, but we communicated the same kind of information.”
This is exactly the kind of global-local – or, as Stéphane puts it, “glo-cal”- expertise that he has been cultivating ever since he first joined RTL Group as an intern in 1994. “I was doing my military service in France, and one thing you could do was go and work abroad,” he explains. “I took a job in Belgium, working in marketing for RTL.”
From the beginning, he enjoyed how multicultural his work was. “In the EU, we have very different cultures, customs, behaviors,” says Stéphane. “My coworkers have always been from many different places. From a personal perspective, it’s very rich.”
After working with an online news website, and in television sales – to name just a few of the roles he has held within the RTL Group – Stéphane took on his current position in 2015. “I was always connecting to colleagues in other countries, and setting up synergies. So this was a great opportunity. It felt logical to me.”
Now, he is focusing on expanding RTL AdConnect’s reach, opening new offices across Europe and the globe – just like the recently inaugurated office in New York. “We’ve been growing our business – to ‘fish where the fish are,’” he says. In addition to being closer to clients, these international offices help RTL AdConnect keep its ear to the ground, culturally. “We need local insights, and local expertise,” says Stéphane. “We definitely have to listen to our environments.”
This is true not only for different markets across Europe, but also in everyday life in the office. “We’re from France, Germany, the UK, Spain - thanks to our different cultures, and despite our differences, we are always trying to work together,” highlights Stéphane, who organises bottom-up workplace discussions on a regular basis. “Together, you have more ideas, and you can reach more cultures,” and adds “We can really learn from each other,” he added.
RTL Nederland’s RTL 4 and video platform Videoland aired Centraal Medisch Centrum (CMC), a medical drama combining branded fiction with activation advertising to raise public awareness of serious health conditions. Each episode is dedicated to one of seven health charities and the respective advertisements aired during the show direct viewers to an online health test. “It’s very special that we can use drama to inform people about important health issues,” says Steven Rijkhoff, Business Manager Creative Unit at RTL Nederland.
“In fact, it’s the first time a commercial broadcaster like RTL Nederland has used a drama series to direct viewers to check their health in this way,” says Steven and adds “All the medical stories are real, which I think makes the message much stronger than fictional storylines. There’s no doubt we got the Dutch people to act on important health topics. We hope we saved actual lives.” Wesley Visseren, Creative at RTL Nederland, credits CMC’s success to “a good story, real medical cases, a great production team and high production values.”
TV and radio
and ad tech
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Our broadcasting businesses, especially Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland and Groupe M6, once again formed the foundation for our financial performance last year. Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland achieved record revenues and earnings, expanded its audience share and outperformed the TV advertising market. By continuously investing into local, exclusive programming and securing attractive live sport, such as Formula 1 races and UEFA Europa League football matches, we ensured an attractive programme line-up going forward.
In France, Groupe M6 increased its revenue through both acquisitions and higher TV advertising. Earnings were down slightly due to a positive one-off effect in the previous year’s results – adjusted for this effect, earnings would have been up significantly. The combination of RTL Radio with Groupe M6 will strengthen our market position in France and generate significant synergies, while we continue to foster editorial independence.
In content production, FremantleMedia reported a slight decrease in revenue due to exchange rate effects, but increased its operating result. The company produced the fantasy series American Gods, which was broadcast on US pay-TV channel Starz and is available outside the US on the Amazon Prime Video streaming service in more than 200 countries. Expanding its production of drama series is a strategic focus for RTL Group.
Our digital businesses generated revenues of €826 million in 2017 – up 23 per cent on the previous year. We expanded our technological expertise: after taking full ownership of SpotX in October 2017, we are now combining it with Smartclip to create a global monetisation platform for broadcasters, VOD services and publishers.
By making progress in each of our three strategic pillars – broadcast, content and digital – we have laid the foundation for RTL Group’s continued success.
In 2017, RTL Group’s Board of Directors focused its work on the Group’s financial performance, strategy implementation, investing in digital businesses, the development of the production business of FremantleMedia, regulatory compliance matters as well as management succession. In this context, we look forward to working with Bert Habets, who has led RTL Group as sole CEO since the beginning of 2018. He will continue the strategy implementation, while providing fresh impetus for the further development of the Group.
Guillaume de Posch resigned from RTL Group’s executive management with effect from 1 January 2018. On behalf of the Board – and also personally – I would like to thank him for his extraordinary achievements. I am very pleased that he continues to serve on our Group’s Board of Directors as a non-executive director. An equally big thank you goes to Anke Schäferkordt, who resigned as Co-CEO from RTL Group’s Executive Committee in April 2017 but continues to be responsible for our largest and most profitable business, Mediengruppe RTL Deutschland. Also in April, Jacques Santer resigned as non-executive director. I would like to thank him for his contribution to the success of RTL Group and CLT-UFA. Jean-Louis Schiltz has joined the Board in April 2017.
Last but not least, my thanks go to our entire management team of RTL Group and to our 13,000 employees around the world, whose commitment makes both the creative and commercial success of RTL Group possible.
I am confident that we will continue to perform strongly and to make attractive offers to our millions of viewers, listeners and users.