Gerhard Zeiler:Passionate AboutProgramming

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.”