“Constructive journalism and investigative journalism are two sides of the same medal. For a very long time I did investigative stories and now I do constructive stories. When you are doing constructive documentaries you show a viewer more perspectives, a broader view of a problem. You still mention the challenges but you go beyond this.”
Christian Dezer, Editor in Chief, ZDF
“plan B” is a weekly 30-minute documentary series launched in 2017 by ZDF. The program shows who and what are most effective in efforts to solve society’s major challenges. The aim is to relay insights of observers, experts and scientists, unpacking the possibilities of different solutions and analysing how realistic they may be. It is all about distinguishing the well-meant from the well done. The team looks beyond the “German box” to solutions developed by European neighbours.
How They Did It
‘plan B’ is the brainchild of Christian Dezer who was given the opportunity to create a new program format for the national public service TV broadcaster ZDF. Dezer was the producer of award-winning investigative documentary series Zoom which uncovered stories such as human trafficking and the fracking industry. Despite industry recognition for the program audience research showed that viewers were looking for something more. Viewers were asking “why do you always tell dark stories and tell us all about the bad in the world? Can you give us a little hope? Can you give us another perspective?” Dezer remembers.
Given the tight timeline of a couple of months to develop a format Christian set out to find out more about constructive journalism, meeting with organisations in Germany as well as Denmark and the UK. ZDF was the first broadcaster to develop a constructive format for documentaries and so they were in unchartered territory.
Solutions focus at ‘plan B’ during corona crisis
Compelling Characters drive audience interest
Initially the team thought they needed to show as many examples as possible in each episode in order to convince viewers that there are other, constructive solutions to problems. For example, for a documentary on public transport the team presented seven examples where local transport was provided for free, or where it works very cheaply and well. However the team discovered that the viewer needed to follow a key protagonist in order to become engaged in the issues. The editors instead chose to focus on the interesting characters that have managed to develop successful alternatives to conventional solutions and reduced the number of stories.
Solutions provided from different sources
Currently there is one big main story divided into two or three episodes. Then there are two to a maximum of three more examples. All the stories cover the same topic but highlight different facets of problem solving. The aim is to show how an individual has tackled the problem, how an organisation is dealing with an issue and finally how a government is taking on the challenge. This way audiences can see how they personally could become involved but also the more systemic work that needs to and can be done.
Some examples of past episodes covered are “Prison without bars“ looking at forms of punishment for successful social rehabilitation and “Re-start instead of retirement“ addressing opportunities for “silver agers”.
Two years on the team has shaped a program that is having success both internally and with audiences. Before Corona they were aiming for a 10% audience share, unusually high for a Saturday afternoon show. The stories covered are also proving effective in engaging young audiences and are some of ZDF’s most popular content on social media.
Solutions focus in the ‘plan B’ studio
Engaged Social Media Audience Solutions stories on different platforms have another life on social media particularly amongst young audiences. Plan B has the most engaged social media audience of any program on ZDF.
Focus on Analysis Audiences want in depth analysis of selected solutions rather than a range of solutions.
Solutions on Different Scales There is a need for solutions on different scales. Solutions that can be taken up by individuals, projects that are being carried out by corporations and institutions and large scale national and international initiative undertaken by govenments and multilateral organisations.