'Dumbing Down' as Content Portfolio Strategy - A Comparison of Public and Private TV Broadcasting in Germany

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

85 Pages, Grade: 1.6


Table of Contents

1 Introduction
1.1 Problem Formulation
1.2 Research Question
1.3 Research Objective
1.4 Methodology
1.5 Thesis Organisation

2 Terms and Definitions

3 Literature Review

4 Theoretical Framework
4.1 BCG Matrix
4.2 Customer Satisfaction Model

5 ‘Dumbing Down’
5.1 Attributes
5.2 ‘Dumbing Down’ as Process and Product

6 Sources of ‘Dumbing Down’
6.1 The Society
6.1.1 Population Profile
6.1.2 Tendencies in Interests
6.2 The Networks and Programmes
6.2.1 Network Objectives and Missions
6.2.2 A Historical Snapshot
6.2.3 Current Televisual Landscape
6.2.4 The Strategy

7 Survey
7.1 Quality in German Television
7.2 Quality Evaluation

8 Case Study - by the Example of ZDF and RTL
8.1 The Programme Portfolios of ZDF and RTL
8.2 Content Analysis on the Basis of Genres

9 Results

10 Conclusion

11 Appendix

12 Bibliography

1. Introduction

"I listened to the entire festivity and I was appalled. There were small television excerpts being offered with some clowns, some nonsense, idiocy, filth, complete filth. This is what is being broadcasted in Germany each day. The directors say that the audience wishes so, as if the audience was a crowd of idiots." On October 11th, 2008, German literature critic Marcel Reich Ranicki rejected the German Television Prize honouring him for his lifetime achievement. In front of rolling cameras, Ranicki made his standpoint very clear that he finds the current television landscape rubbish and dull. His words are the result of 25 years of private televisual content development in Germany. Today’s media environment has changed drastically. Each day we find more and more TV programmes which are designed for an audience that demands no intellectual work and wants to be entertained. This matter of entertainment has exclusively formed the television networks’ programming strategies concerning their content. Consequently, the offer of daily soaps (“GZSZ”), reality TV (“Big Brother”, “Dschungelcamp”) and game/casting shows (“Deutschland sucht den Superstar”) has risen, while the offer of classical formats such as fiction film, documentaries and sophisticated programmes (“Das literarische Quartett”) has decreased.

1.1. Problem Formulation

Since the establishment of private broadcasting in 1984, the television offering in Germany has not only changed quantitatively but also qualitatively. Today, we have a range of more than 50 German private TV broadcasters with an enormous variety of programmes. In recent years, we have been experiencing a downward trend of content quality, which is defined as ‘dumbing down’. The problem arises that in the battle for ratings, intellectual demand fades into the background of sole entertainment. This approach has evolved into the main content portfolio strategy of private television. But is it only the private broadcasters’ blame or are ARD and ZDF also striving for audience ratings in their programming methods? Is television in fact dumbing the culture down or is it making it smarter? Which side triggered the effect of ‘dumbing down’ - the media or the audience? These questions still remain unanswered. Therefore, this paper intends to analyse the matter of ‘dumbing down’ as well as the interrelated content portfolio strategy.

1.2. Research Question

This thesis paper will investigate and answer the following research questions:

- RQ1:

What are the cause and effect of ‘dumbing down’?

- RQ2:

How does ‘dumbing down’ interrelate with the broadcasting networks’ content portfolio strategies?

- RQ3:

What are the effects of ‘dumbing down’ on television programming?

1.3. Research Objective

This paper aims to analyse the hypothesis that TV broadcasting networks focus on less intellectual programmes in order to ensure high ratings. In doing so, the null hypothesis that television serves as an educational medium will prospectively be falsified. Further, by comparing public and private TV in Germany, it will be determined whether or not there is a difference in tendencies toward shallow content. It is important to note that the research will only refer to the mainstream analogue television landscape in Germany. Since a broader analysis of both digital and analogue offerings would go beyond the scope of the thesis, it has been decided to focus on the traditional television format.

1.4. Methodolgy

The motivation to write about the television landscape in Germany emerged after listening to literature critic Marcel Reich Ranicki’s words at the German Television Prize and later in the thirty-minute discussion with showmaster Thomas Gottschalk on ZDF. Animated by this, the research questions were formulated analysing the interrelation of ‘dumbing down’ and television content portfolio strategy. After conducting internet research (EBSCO Host and Google Scholar), a collection of articles and books was gathered. Since it was difficult to find literature with a direct link between content portfolio strategies and today’s culture, the research was split into both separate topics. The next step was to arrange the articles into their particular themes such as programming strategies, quality of the media, programme genres and analyses, TV viewers conduct and finally academic as well as scientific research papers. However, the process of collecting relevant literature turned out to be continuous throughout the completion of the thesis. Afterwards, the theoretical framework was set in order to tackle the issues and problems. It was decided to use the BCG Matrix and the Customer Satisfaction Model from Kano. For the purpose of analysing the viewers’ responses to current TV news programming, a survey was conducted by the author. Further information about the online survey will be employed in the appendix. Also, in order to conclude the thesis and to contrast public and private television programming, a case study was undertaken based on the research of Yin (2002). Here, the author analyses and compares the programme portfolios of ZDF and RTL in order to assume the profitability of the various genres. Lastly, the attempt to obtain expert interviews with the network RTL failed because the Vice President of Strategic Program Planning felt that the title of the thesis displayed a “wholesale condemnation of private television”.

1.5. Thesis Organisation

In the organization of the Bachelor’s Thesis, the general problems as well as the research questions were formulated in order to establish a central basis for the upcoming research. The methodology depicts the approach that has been complied with in tackling the problem. Chapter 2 employs a list of terms and definitions for the purpose of clarifying technical knowledge that is relevant in the course of the thesis. Chapter 3 reviews the literature that served as a fundamental information source. In chapter 4, the theoretical framework is explained. There, the models of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG Matrix) and of Kano (Customer Satisfaction Model) are clarified serving as a basis for later applications. The fifth chapter analyses the term ‘dumbing down’ and allocates various attributes to it so as to undertake a health check of various programmes from the main German networks ARD, ZDF, RTL, Sat.1 and ProSieben. Chapter 6 deals with the roles of the receiver and the sender of the medium, respectively the society and the television networks, in an attempt to determine the sources of ‘dumbing down’. There, the population of Germany is depicted and an analysis of its programme choices is determined. The second subchapter comprises the networks’ objectives and mission statements (as stated on the networks’ web pages) for the purpose of understanding their motivations for television programming. After presenting a historical snapshot of television content, the current landscape is illustrated in order to identify the interrelated strategies. Chapter 7 contains a survey conducted by the author. Here, the author investigated the subject of quality and its meaning within the context of television. Further, he employs the results of the online survey regarding the audience’s satisfaction with current news programmes. Chapter 8 is the case study which uses the comparative example of ZDF and RTL. After determining their programme portfolios and allocating the genres to the BCG Matrix, the tendencies towards content of both networks are analysed. Chapter 9 summarizes the findings of the previous chapters followed by the conclusion drawn from the research.

2. Terms and Definitions

This chapter will define and explain the technical terms with reference to the subject of television programming. The following definitions are listed in alphabetical order.

Audience Flow

The term ‘audience flow’ conceives “ audience members as flowing from one program to the next ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 15).


“ Spreading a modulated electromagnetic signal over a large area by means of a transmitting antenna ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 412).


„ A period of two or more hours, considered to be a strategic unit in program schedules “ (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 416).

Dual System

„ Das Modell des dualen Rundfunks, in demöffentlich-rechtliche und private kommerzielle sowie nicht-kommerzielle Rundfunkanbieter in unterschiedlicher Tr ä gerschaft nebeneinander existieren “ [The model of dual broadcasting, in which public and privately commercial as well as non-commercial broadcasting providers coexist in different operations] (Roßnagel and Strothmann 2004: 16).


“ A program that records actual events and real people ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 416).


“ A prime-time series program format, usually one hour long, contrasting with situation comedy. It includes action-adventure, crime, and doctor shows; adult soaps; and other dramatic forms ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 417).

Dumbing Down

The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “to dumb sth down” as follows: “ to make something simpler and easier for people to understand, especially in order to make it more popular ” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2009d).

Factual Television

Factual television or factual entertainment documents realism with actual events and actual people mirroring the society to itself (Bignell and Orlebar 2005: 106).

Feature Film

“ A theatrical motion picture, usually made for theater distribution ( … ) ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 418).


A programme that originates from the convergence of the two formats information and entertainment.

Least Objectionable Programming

“ A theory holding that viewers select not the most appealing program among those available at one time but the one that offends fewest viewers watching together; it presumes that channel switching requires an active effort occurring only when the channel currently being viewed presents something new and objectionable ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 421).

Magazine Format

“ A television or radio program composed of varied segments within a common framework, structurally resembling a printed magazine ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 422).


“ An interconnected chain of broadcast stations or cable systems that receive programming simultaneously. This also refers to the administrative and technical unit that distributes (and may originate) pre-planned schedules of programs ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 424).

Prime Time

“ Television daypart; in practice, 8 to 11 P.M. (EST) six days a week and 7 to 11 P.M. Sundays. Technically, any three consecutive hours between 7 P.M. and midnight ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 426).

Programming Strategies

The following definitions refer to the six strategies that are relevant for the essence of the thesis. These are listed in alphabetical order.

Blunting is “ match[ing] the competition by scheduling a show with identical appeal ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 131).

Hammocking tries to prevent an audience reduction by placing a presumptive weak programme between two strong shows (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 129).

Leading-in “ places a strong series before a weaker (or any new) series to give it a jump start ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 129).

Leading-off or anchoring means “ beginning an evening with an especially strong program ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 129).

Linchpinning or tentpoling is defined as focusing “ on a central, strong show on weak evenings ( … ) to hold or brace the ones before and after it ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 130).

Stunting “ includes scheduling specials, adding guest stars, having unusual series promotion, and otherwise altering the regular program schedule at the last minute ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 131).


“ A rating is an estimate of the percentage of the total number of people or households in a population tuned to a specific station or network during a specific time period (daypart) ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 50).

Reality shows

“ Low-budget television series using edited tapes of real people in contrived situations or at their jobs (supplemented by on-camera interviews and reenactments), especially police officers, fire crews, and emergency workers, or games ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 427).


The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “sensationalism” as follows: “ when newspapers, TV, etc. intentionally present information in a way that is intended to excite or shock people ” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2009h).


“ A program that has multiple episodes sharing a common cast, plot line, and situation ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 429).


“ A share is an estimate of the percentage of people or households that are actually using radio or television and are tuned to a specific station or network during a specific daypart ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 50-51).

Situation comedy (sitcom)

“ A program (usually half-hour in length) in which characters react to new plots or altered situations ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 430).

Soap opera

“ A serial drama generally scheduled on broadcast networks during weekday afternoons ” (Eastman and Ferguson 2006: 430).

Third Person Effect

A person exposed to a persuasive communication in the mass media sees this as having a greater effect on others than on himself or herself. Each individual reasons: “ I will not be influenced, but they (the third persons) may well be persuaded ”” (Davison 1983: 4).

Water Cooler Effect

A network externality (benefit) regarding “the role of television viewing as a common experience that people discuss ‘ around the water cooler ’” (Seabright 2007: 106).

3. Literature Review

This review will present the literature that was essential to the completion of this Bachelor’s Thesis. This refers to industry-related journals, books and academic research papers. The literature review also serves as a guide to draw the relevance of already published literature to the present thesis.

In “A Portfolio Theory Approach to Network Program Selection”, the authors Barry R. Litman, Seema Shrikhande, and Hoekyun Ahn from the Department of Telecommunication at Michigan State University explain the relationship of programme management and investment portfolio management. According to the authors, the broadcasting networks’ programmes are assets that generate returns for a given level of risk. Consequently, a “portfolio is a set of different assets that investors hold to maximize their wealth” (Litman, Shrikhande and Ahn 2000: 57). The article gave a clearer understanding of the nature of programme selection in terms of decisions for financial investments.

The media journal “Media Perspektiven” annually publishes its programme analysis of ARD, ZDF, RTL, Sat.1 and ProSieben. In edition 4/2009, “Politikthematisierung und Alltagskultivierung im Infoangebot“ [Thematisation of politics and cultivation of everyday life in the information offering] employs a detailed analysis of the German networks’ portfolios comparing private and public TV broadcasting in their topics and formats. This article is important to the research since it serves as a valuable information resource.

“Media Programming. Strategies and Practices” by Susan Tyler Eastman and Douglas A. Ferguson focuses on the strategies of media companies in their programming efforts. The book also approaches the subjects of programme and audience research as well as various genres of television programming. Since the book also employs an extensive glossary on media terms, it was a very effective means for the Bachelor’s Thesis.

4. Theoretical Framework

This chapter includes explanations to the theoretical models used by the author. The following framework will be applied in the course of this thesis.

4.1 BCG Matrix

In order to analyse the portfolio management approaches of television networks, the matrix model developed by the Boston Consulting Group is an important tool. The BCG Matrix employs a deeper understanding of a company’s product portfolio. It can be used to decide on the future of various products. Since it determines the economic viability of the company, it gives information on whether or not to invest in a product, to keep it, or to liquidate it (12manage.com 2009b).

Figure 1: The BCG Matrix

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Adapted from 12manage.com

Figure 1 shows the division of the matrix into four categories. The star has a high growth rate and a high market share. Stars demand high investments but they generate large amounts of cash in return. Once the business growth rate declines, market share should be kept in order to turn stars into cash cows. A cash cow has a low growth rate but a strong position in the market. Hence, little money should be invested in this kind of product, which nevertheless generates profits. Products that are identified as dogs should be eliminated. They have a low growth rate as well as a low market share. Therefore, they are not valuable for the company if they do not generate any cash. Question marks have a high growth rate but a weak position in the market. Thus, these products use large amounts of cash but generate only few profits in return. Question marks have the potential to be turned into stars with the help of high investments. If the market growth slows, they may turn into cash cows. If the growth slows and the product fails to succeed, it may turn into a dog (12manage.com 2009b).

4.2 Customer Satisfaction Model

The Customer Satisfaction Model from Kano measures whether or not customers are satisfied with a product. The model is divided into six categories defining quality. The first three attributes directly influence customer satisfaction. Basic factors are essential to a product and a lack of these will result in dissatisfaction. However, since these factors are regarded as given, they do not cause customer satisfaction. Excitement factors have the potential to increase satisfaction by delighting the customer but do not cause dissatisfaction if they are not present. Performance factors are linear to both ends because they may result in satisfaction if performed well or may cause dissatisfaction if the performance is low. The other three attributes are of little or no consequence to the customer and his decision. Indifferent attributes are not subject to attention. Questionable attributes are uncertain of their relevance to the customer. Reverse attributes are expected to be removed (12manage.com 2009a).

Figure 2: The Customer Satisfaction Model from Kano

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Adapted from 12manage.com

By complying a questionnaire among customers, their satisfaction with a product and its attributes can be determined.

5. ‘Dumbing Down’

This chapter will deal with the topic of ‘dumbing down’. First, defining attributes will be assigned to the term in order to analyse its deeper meaning. After having completed the characterisation of ‘dumbing down’, it will be categorised into two types of focus points: process and product. These categories will place the term within the context of media management conducting a programme health check.

5.1 Attributes

In order to ascribe appropriate attributes to the term ‘dumbing down’ it is important to understand its meaning in general in order to draw a worst-case scenario displaying its collateral effects. As the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines ‘dumbing down’, it is the method of facilitating content so as to gain popularity. Hence in this context, it infers a strategic approach at the society of a culture that assumably lacks a certain level of intellect. It can be further deduced that the majority of the society is affected by this decline of intelligence. As a consequence, the producers of products and services, such as TV programmes, proceed on the assumption that simplistic things are demanded from the consumers, respectively the mainstream. The result is a supply of ‘dumbed down’ products developed for a ‘dumbed down’ culture. This scenario is a straightforward deduction of the definition. Thus, it allows the allocation of attributes to the term ‘dumbing down’.

In the following, a list of attributes will be assigned to ‘dumbing down’ in order to explain the term in a continued sense. The definitions are retrieved from the “Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary”.

Banal: “ boring, ordinary and not original ” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2009a) Credulous: “ too willing to believe what you are told; easily deceived ” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2009b)

Dumb: “ stupid and annoying ” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2009c)

Infantile: “ typical of a child and therefore unsuitable for an adult ” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2009e)

Lowbrow: “ (of entertainment) not complicated or demanding much intelligence to be understood ” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2009f)

Mindless: “ 1 stupid and meaningless; 2 not needing much mental effort ” (Cambridge Dictionaries Online 2009g)

Furthermore, ‘dumbing down’ includes the decline of literature and intellect, a mediadirected culture, the unimportance of education, sensationalism, the fall of tradition and family, the decline of institutional values, the consumption without objection, public sexuality, and also the focus on quantity instead of quality.

5.2 ‘Dumbing Down’ as Process and Product

In order to form a relevance to media management, ‘dumbing down’ will be analysed within the context of the two categories process and product.

‘Dumbing Down’ as a Process

In the process of ‘dumbing down’, the first step is the recognition or the assumption that people demand less intellectual content from the television programmes. Once the ideas for existing and possible programme formats are gathered, it is being decided upon the least objectionable programming (LOP). Paul Klein (as cited in Johnson 2006: 161), who was the programming head of NBC in the years 1960, explained his LOP theory as follows. “ All a show has to be is least objectionable among a segment of the audience. When you put on a show, ( … ) you get your 32-share. That ’ s about [a third] of the network audience, and the other networks get their 32 shares. Then we can add to that by our competitors ’ failure - they become objectionable so people turn to us if we ’ re less objectionable. ( … ) Melodrama ’ s good, ( … ) a little tear here and there, a little morality tale, that ’ s good. ( … ) That ’ s least objectionable. It ’ s my job to keep my 32, not to cause any tune-out a priori in terms of ads or concepts, to make sure there ’ s no tune-out in the shows vis- à -vis the competition ”. This programming approach becomes apparent in the product portfolio of various television networks.

‘Dumbing Down’ as a Product

The result of the process of ‘dumbing down’ is the product, respectively the programmes. The attributes that were assigned to the term ‘dumbing down’ in chapter 5.1 can be used in a health check to identify television programmes as ‘dumbing down’. In the following, one programme (that seems adequate in this context) from each of the main networks in Germany (ARD, ZDF, RTL, Sat.1 and ProSieben) will be presented and evaluated. Thereby, a perception of unsophisticated programmes will be established.

“Verbotene Liebe” on ARD is a soap opera targeted at a young audience. The main concept of the soap is a forbidden love between two twin siblings who were separated after birth but later coincidentally meet again. The show continued evolving around this main thread introducing several ‘forbidden love’ affairs and currently there exist approximately more than 3400 episodes. Among others, the topics and contents can be classified with attributes such as banal, lowbrow, mindless, unimportance of education, public sexuality, the fall of traditional values and the focus on quantity instead of quality.

“Wetten, dass ..?” on ZDF is a show that has been successful for more than two decades. Since 1987, Thomas Gottschalk has been presenting the programme. The concept is about ordinary people who have a talent of doing something special. They bet that they can perform their extraordinary talent and celebrities on the show stake their bet or counter bet. In the end, the viewers vote for their act of choice in order to determine a “Wettkönig” [bet king]. The show is decorated with entertainment performances and celebrities. It is also known for engaging in the stunting strategy extending the show in the last minute. Attributes that match this programme are lowbrow, mindless, media-directed culture and sensationalism.

“Ich bin ein Star - Holt mich hier raus!” (also called “Dschungelcamp“) on RTL is a reality show that has been produced since 2004. The programme involves ten people, mostly outdated celebrities, who move to the jungle for approximately two weeks. In the course of their stay, the inhabitants are required to pass various tests of courage which are usually associated with disgust. The viewers vote for the persons to leave the camp so as to elect one final “Dschungelkönig” [jungle king]. This show can be categorized into dumb, infantile, mindless, decline of literature and intellect, unimportance of education, sensationalism, public sexuality and the consumption without objection.

“Richterin Barbara Salesch” on Sat.1 is a show that is set in a court (also called court show). The concept is about staged cases of jurisdiction and their resolution by a judge. To date, there are more than 1700 episodes of the show. The topics include (among others) murder, rape, theft, and fraud. The attributes of ‘dumbing down’ that correspond to this programme are banal, credulous, dumb, sensationalism, consumption without objection and the focus on quantity instead of quality.

“We are Family!” on ProSieben is a reality programme that has features of a documentary as well as of a soap (also called docu-soap). In this show, a camera team follows German families in their everyday lives. This programme can be classified with following attributes: banal, dumb, lowbrow, mindless, decline of literature and intellect, media-directed culture, unimportance of education, fall of family and traditional values and the consumption without objection.

As an interim result, ‘dumbing down’ is a cross-genre phenomenon in the current German television landscape. Not only do both private and public broadcasters provide lowbrow entertainment, but the matter of ‘dumbing down’ can be found in various genres reaching from documentaries over court and reality shows to soap operas.


Excerpt out of 85 pages


'Dumbing Down' as Content Portfolio Strategy - A Comparison of Public and Private TV Broadcasting in Germany
Cologne Business School Köln
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
2430 KB
dumbing, down, content, portfolio, strategy, comparison, public, private, broadcasting, germany
Quote paper
Resulhan Öztimur (Author), 2009, 'Dumbing Down' as Content Portfolio Strategy - A Comparison of Public and Private TV Broadcasting in Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/186652


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: 'Dumbing Down' as Content Portfolio Strategy - A Comparison of Public and Private TV Broadcasting in Germany

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free