German TV explained for foreigners

German TV - TV licence fee - Video-on-Demand services in Germany - Learn/improve German with TV - What's on - Best TV German shows and other programs

A few weeks ago I had to stand in line for over 45 minutes and although the long queue was discouraging at first, thanks to the chatty group of Germans in front of me, the experience turn out to be quite productive: I got inspired to write this blog entry!

At 6pm on the second floor of the Gasteig Volkshochschule in Munich, there was already a very long line of people waiting to get into the info/registration office. And right in front of me there was a group of five locals having a loud and heated conversation about their favourite shows on TV. I listened to them for a while until their discussion brought me back to my first weeks in Munich, long time ago: when I was trying to navigate the German TV schedule in search of what I could watch with my limited German.

Screen shot of TV Movie website
I muss confess that I did not invest a lot of time in my quest and therefore I never managed to do a TV selection on my own but instead I had to turn to colleagues and friends for advice. And thanks to them and only thanks to them, today, two years later I am writing this blog entry where I intend to recommend what you can watch on TV in Germany.

First of all you should know that I do not watch a lot of TV but when I do, it is either useful for my German or informative for my hobbies/interests. Also there are a couple of programs that I do not specially like but since they are relevant to the German day-to-day life, I try to follow (mostly by reading about them not watching), so I am not lost when they come up in a conversation or made headlines on the Bild.

Screen shot of the Rundfunkbeitrag (=TV Licence Fee) website

For a start, let me tell you that in Germany you have to pay a monthly fee (17,98€) if you own a TV device or a radio station. This is called the "Rundfunkgebühr" (= the TV Licence fee) and it aims to finance the German public TV and radio channels: ARD, ZDF and Deutschland radio. For more information: go to Rundfunkbeitrag.


If you are new to Germany and would like to have a quick overview of what's on, when and where, I suggest you visit one of the many online TV program guides. Besides the structure of the TV schedule in Germany can tell you many things about the everyday culture and way of life in Germany. For example:
  • the most popular news program in Germany is "die Tagesschau", which is actually the name of the news on the first channel (ARD); 
  • the evening news are at 8pm every weekday and they last 15 minutes;
  • blockbusters or popular series start at 8.15pm (usually after the news);
Screen shot of die Tagesschau at 8pm
Online TV program guides that I like: Tvmovie and Spielfilm.

I am a huge fan of Netflix and it would be one of the first services that I would sign up for, if I moved to the US, but unfortunately it is not available in Germany. 

Instead Germany has other VoD platforms such as:
  • Maxdome is a service owned by the media group ProSiebenSat 1 Media, that offers Tv series, films and documentaries for a reasonable monthly fee. 
Screen shot: Maxdome website
  • Many German Tv channels have a media center (called "Mediathek" in German) where you can watch online (in streaming) past episodes or programs. For example: ARD ,ZDFRTLSIXXSAT 1 and ARTE. They are usually free.
  • Sky is one of the most popular Subscription Pay TV channels in Germany because they have the broadcast rights for the German Football League (Bundesliga) and the UEFA Champions/Europa League. I am not a subscriber but as far as I understand, they also offer a VoD service.
Screen shot: Sky website
Also for those of you who do not own a TV set: Zattoo is a legal platform where you can watch live most German TV channels and a few international ones (from France, Italy and Spain). They do not offer VoD yet, but still they are one to add to your favorites. 

Screen shot: Zattoo website

Last year, when preparing the DSH exam, I had to read about the impact of TV on children. In particular: about how a long TV-viewing time can lead to a poor school performance, but a controlled and limited time can actually foster the children's new ideas and contribute to better test scores. 

I do not have a final opinion on the topic but I am mentioning it here because what I do strongly believe is that a good use of TV is beneficial to learn a foreign language.  

On TV: it does not matter what level of German you have, there is always a TV program aimed at you: a cartoon, a foreign movie with subtitles, the daily news or a documentary. Watching TV gets you to focus on the language. It may be for five or 30 minutes, but during this time your brain is 100% in learning mode: absorbing new words and expressions and getting used to the ton and music of the language.

While on this topic, I would like to mention a web soap opera that I adore: "Jojo sucht das Glück", produced by the group Deutsche Welle. It has been more than a year since I last watched it, but when I was B2, it helped me enormously (and entertained me as well), so check it out!

To know more: "Die telenovela für Deutschlernen".

Screen shot: Deutsche Welle

Die Tagesschau = the German news. You can either watch them live at 8pm on weekdays or in streaming at the ARD site anytime that is more convenient for you. 
If you find them to be very difficult to follow, you can do two things:
  • set up the subtitles in teletext number 150;
  • train your listening skills at the Deutsche Welle website in its section called "slowly spoken German news" (levels B2-C1). 

Screen shot from Deutsche Welle: slowly spoken German news
The channels N24 and n-TV are German news channels that are worth keeping an eye on.
For example, and aside from their regular news programs, on Saturday morning while doing cardio in the gym I sometimes watch on n-TV:
  • 9.30am: 5th Avenue which is a 30-minute program about celebrity and gossip news (from Germany and the world),
  • or an hour later "Das Auslandsreport" which is a short report/documentary program about different current international topics (last one about what's actually going on in north Korea).
Die Sendung mit der MausThe program with the mouse has been on in TV for 40 years already and although it was originally aimed to kids, many adults watch it as well.

Screen shot: the program with the mouse
It is broadcast on Sunday morning at 11.30am on ARD and KIKA, but they also show it again on Saturday and on Monday (check their website or the above screen shot for more info). Also at the official site of Die Sendung mit der Maus you can watch past episodes and the "Sachgeschichten" anyday at anytime. 

I really enjoy these short reports/mini documentaries, each one based on a different topic that are simple questions about regular things in life: where does the heart shape come from?; how does Internet really works?; how long is a moment of time?; why is the sky blue?; etc.

Galileo (Prosieben, weekdays at 7pm) is one of my favorites. The show brings short reports or stories on current or day-to-day topics.

Screen shot of Galileo website

Germans  L O V E  Krimis (=shows about crimes, detectives and police stories) and if you do not believe me, just have a look at the TV schedule. To learn about a few of the unexpected large number of TV German Krimis just keep reading:

Tatort (ARD, on Sundays at 8.15pm) is the big star of all German TV police/crime shows because it has been a success since its first episode in 1970. Every episode features a "Kripo"  team in a different German city (Kripo = the criminal investigation department) but they also produce single episodes for special actors/occasions, as it happened with the one with Til Schweiger as a Hamburg Kripo detective, which achieved a record in the TV ratings.

Tatort is sometimes difficult to understand due to the regional accents and the vocabulary, but luckily for us, it is always broadcast with subtitles (Txt. 150).

Overview of the different Tatort teams in the different German cities.

Screen shot of Tatort website @ARD
Another star of the German TV industry is Alarm für Cobra 11 (RTL, on Weekdays at 8.15pm): about two detectives of the highway police department in Berlin. The episode usually starts with an amazing car chase at full speed, a shocking car crash or a impressive car race, but instead of ending up in a speed ticket or an insurance claim, it always reveals a more serious crime (murder, drug trafficking, bank robbery, etc.). This show has been very successful beyond the German borders and so it has been translated in other languages and is currently broadcast in other European countries.

Der Letze Bulle (Sat.1, on Mondays at 20.15pm) is about a German homicide detective that was shot and put in a coma for 30 years. Then he wakes up and resumes his duties in the year 2010.

Kommissar Stolberg (ZDF, every two Saturdays at 21.45pm): about a experienced and intuitive homicide inspector und München 7 (ARD, on Wednesday at 18.50pm): about two cops on patrol at the Viktualienmarkt in Munich.

Realities:  I cannot not stand reality shows, but I have learnt to tolerate them here in Germany. Why? because some of them are cult shows for the Germans, so it is a minor effort I do for the big good of the integration in the German culture...

For example: Germany next top model (ProSieben) is based on the US show but instead of Tyra Banks, Germany has Heidi Klum. This show has been leader in the TV ratings for six seasons. And it is one that if you do not/cannot watch, unless try to follow on the newspapers because it is very likely that it will come up in conversations or headlines.

Screen shot Germany's next topmodel
While talking about realities, the German channel VOX deserves a special mention because its offer of reality/docu-soap programs goes beyond imaginationFor example: 
And finally I would not like to say goodbye talking about realities so let me mention a few more TV tips: 

  • the program: news for kids on KIKA, which is a channel for children, part of the ARD and ZDF group);
  • ARTE is a french-german culture channel where contents from both countries are broadcast (always with subtitles);
  • for nostalgics Tele 5 is a channel that every time I turn it on, it has a series from the 80's-90's;
  • BR Alpha "klüger fernsehen" (smarter TV viewing) for example, they have GRIPS which is a TV program to learn German.
Screen shot of BR alpha: GRIPS
Before I say goodbye, I would like to make you aware that tonight is "Freinacht" (=free night) also called "Hexennacht" (=night of the witches), which happens (in Bayern) the night of the 30/04 to 01/05 and means (in the countryside in Bayern only) that young men are allowed to go crazy and do stupid things like cover vehicles with toilet paper; spray doors or cars with saving foam and so on... 

This is all from me today, as always, please drop me a line with your comments, suggestions and questions. Do you have other favorites on Tv? 

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  1. One month! I was starting to miss your posts!

    Great advises as always. Thank you very much and keep it up!

    1. Thanks creepo, I am always thankful for your very kind feedback :-)

    2. hahaa :D Now that's not a sentence you hear/read very often... (I mean because of the name creepo lol)

  2. Great information!! I love your blog! I just moved to Germany a month ago from the U.S. Our rented flat has TV service, but I've only turned it on to see if fussball games are televised--they're not, at least not on the level of TV service I have--but I do hope to figure out the captioning and watch German TV with captions once I begin language instruction. However, being deaf, it's going to be a challenge to learn to speak and lipread in Germany, but I'm hopeful. At the very least, I hope to learn to read and write Germany.

    Just a note: I do a lot of captioning advocacy (captioning/subtitling is my language since I need to see speech) and one of the benefits of captioning is that is a wonderful tool when learning language. So, turn on those captions and reinforce what you are hearing. ~~Michele

  3. Thank you very much Michele :-) I am happy to hear that you are safe and happy after the move to Munich. Welcome to Bayern! by the way :-)
    I am with you re captions/subtitles.

  4. Thanks for the information here! I also really enjoy Galileo, and I must admit, Germany's Next Top Model is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine ;) I say I'm watching it to help my German....but really.... :D Oh well. I balance it out with some "smarter TV" too :) Keep up the great posts! Thanks!!