Gerhard Zeiler: Passionate About Programming

Unmatched enthusiasm fuels the first-ever Tartikoff Awards honoree from outside the U.S.

Ask longtime friends and associates about
RTL Group CEO Gerhard Zeiler and
they invariably mention his success
running Europe’s largest broadcaster,
a massive regional operation that includes
40 TV channels and 32 radio
stations in 10 countries.

Even during the global financial crash, when European
TV advertising collapsed and many broadcasters
sunk into red ink, the RTL Group racked up
€755 million ($1 billion) in earnings before interest,
taxes and amortization (EBITA) in 2009. The company
has since done even better, with €537 million
($718 million) in EBITA during the first six months
of 2010. That’s a 46% jump over the first six months
of 2009, and represents the best half-year results in
RTL’s history.

“During some of the worst financial times we’ve
seen, when ad revenues were really under pressure, Gerhard
managed to make those stations really profitable,”
notes Mark Kaner, president of Twentieth-Century
Fox Television Distribution, who has known Zeiler for
years. “He’s a very accomplished corporate executive.”

But Kaner joins many others in quickly pointing out
the real reason Zeiler so richly deserves to be the first
person outside the U.S. to receive the Brandon Tartikoff
Award: his enthusiasm for TV programming.

“His greatest passion and his greatest talent is for
programming,” Kaner explains. “He’s always traveling
and looking at new programming.

“Brandon Tartikoff loved TV, and so does Gerhard,”
Kaner adds. “Tartikoff changed TV in the U.S.
and Gerhard changed TV in Germany.”

Zeiler’s programming passion has been a hallmark
of his entire career. Born in 1955 in Vienna, Austria,
Zeiler studied psychology, sociology and educational
science at university and then worked at the Austrian
Institute for Occupational Research. After a stint as
a freelance journalist, he became a press spokesman,
first for the Minister of Education and the Arts in
1979 and later for Chancellor Dr. Franz Vranitzky.

During those years, Zeiler also cut his teeth in television
when he was named to the supervisory board
of the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF),
the country’s public broadcaster, at the young age of
24. “Even then I knew I had a passion for TV,” Zeiler
recalls in a lengthy email exchange.

In 1986, when he became ORF’s secretary-general,
there were no commercial stations in Austria, but
the first commercial stations had been launched in
Germany. In 1991, Zeiler started running the German
commercial channel Tele 5 based in Munich,
and in 1992 became the CEO of the second-generation
network RTL II.

Early on, his enthusiasm for the kind of popular
TV programming that the new commercial broadcasters
were bringing to Europe was already evident.
“He was running this new channel and he didn’t
have a lot of money, but he was great to work with
because he was so passionate about the programming,”
recalls Gary Marenzi, copresident of worldwide
television at MGM.

In 1994, Zeiler moved back to the world of public
broadcasting as the CEO of ORF. But in 1998,
he returned to Germany as the CEO of RTL Television,
arriving at the top job at a pivotal point
in the history of commercial broadcasting in
the country.

“Helmut Thomas was the founding father
of RTL Television Germany and established
the channel as the clear market leader,” with
double-digit advertising growth in the 1980s
and 1990s, Zeiler explains. But by the time
Zeiler became CEO, “there were signs that
advertising revenues had reached the ceiling.
My task was to lead the channel into its next
phase, maintaining its ratings and programming
success and even improving its profi tability
under market conditions which had
become much more difficult.”

To strengthen operations, Zeiler worked
with the management of Bertelsmann, which
is the dominant shareholder of the RTL
Group, to build a family of channels in Germany,
each targeting different demographics. Today the
RTL Group has stakes in a group of eight German
channels that had a 34.8% audience share of Germans
aged 14-49 and a 43.3% share of the net TV
advertising market in the first half of 2010.

Since Zeiler was named CEO of the RTL Group
in 2003, that strategy has also been the cornerstone of
its European operations. Today the company has large
groups of channels in a number of European territories.
“It gives us a presence in every important market
segment,” which has helped grow the company’s overall
audiences and ad revenues, Zeiler explains.

While Zeiler is a fan of American programming,
he moved early on at RTL in Germany to beef up local
production. That would eventually boost ratings
and profi ts, but at the time it was an expensive and
potentially risky proposition.

FremantleMedia CEO Tony Cohen recalls that
Zeiler decided to go ahead with a German version
of Idols in the early days of the format, before it was
a huge global success. “People have forgotten that it
was quite a bold decision to put a music talent show
in primetime in Germany [in 2002] because it has
since became such a huge success,” Cohen recalls.
“At the time, though, there were a lot of people who
thought it wouldn’t work.”

“Brandon Tartikoff was a brave, courageous, and
extremely popular programmer, and I think Gerhard
is a fantastic blend of those qualities,” Cohen adds.

Zeiler has been careful to allow Fremantle to operate
as an independent subsidiary that works with all broadcasters
and channels, including competitors, a strategy
that has been crucial for its recent success, Cohen says.

Zeiler has also given RTL channels around Europe
a great deal of local autonomy so that they can
better respond to the audiences of each country. “A
lot of people have fallen on the sword of synergy,”
notes Marenzi. “Gerhard has avoided that by keeping
a firm hand on the overall group [while giving] the
local units the authority to respond quickly to local
market conditions.”

And company growth continues: RTL Group is
expanding its family of channels in each market. It
is also aggressively pushing into digital technologies,
using online sites, digital channels, mobile TV, VOD
and other distribution methods to strengthen its
broadcasting brands. The philosophy almost seems
a natural outgrowth of the man at the top, who remains
a true believer in the power of the medium.

“The future of TV,” Zeiler quips, “is TV.”