When French President François Mitterrand and Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl launched the station in 1990, a shiver went down my spine. A.R.T.E. stood for “Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne”, in German an even worse monster: “association regarding European television”. And then, right from the start of broadcasting in 1992, this joy: Arte is state of the art, special, witty, at times stubborn. It would not be surprising if one of the many focal points of the program examined the far side of the moon. This exceptional phenomenon is an inspiration to watch television differently, an instigator to be different. If successful, television for non-television viewers.
The sculpture “Giraffe Man” by Stephan Balkenhol greets you in front of the Arte building in Strasbourg. A hybrid, unaggressive, enigmatic mixed creature despite its three meter height, which radiates calm and calls for reflection. Inside, the canteen, which isn’t actually a restaurant, proves that contemplation also makes you hungry. So much France has to be. So it is only inevitable that Arte takes into account the different dinner times in Germany and France in the early days of its programs. First the food, then the fun.
Typical for a television dandy: no sports, no folk music, no talk shows are broadcast, instead philosophy (Raphaël Enthoven), German-French curiosities (“Karambolage”) and “Street philosophy” (Ronja von Rönne), Arte Opéra and Arte Concert, both linear and online, in the media library or on YouTube.
Arte is German-French television culture? Nonsense, there is no such thing as there is no such thing as Franco-German literature or French-German painting. No, Arte is German, French, European television in six languages. National differences, national peculiarities and peculiarities may continue to exist, the rejection of Europudding and German-French matchmaking applies. In fiction, ARTE 2015 wanted to prove the opposite with “The Divided Village” and “Day of Truth” – two rare mistakes. Because television needs local humus so that the interest of others in one’s own interest grows. Just see the genre of the series. “Vigil” (Great Britain), “The House on a Hill” (Japan), “Servant of the People” (Ukraine) – such treasures from all over the world of television are always on offer.
Whoever acted and still acts as president or program director of Arte, whatever task was and is being performed in Strasbourg or by the shareholders in Baden-Baden and Paris – it is this feeling of the Arte employees for originality in quality, that characterizes the program. Film, series, documentation, reportage: All formats are characterized by content relevance and seriousness even in light material. Of course, Arte can draw on a sheer inexhaustible reservoir of topics, but who can deny that the agony is included in the choice? And in the ambition to promote those arts that no longer have a slot in other programs. So it is broadcast live from La Scala in Milan or the Opéra Bastille in Paris. Stressful? Yes! Away? Since when is what really defines people, since when have art and culture been alienated? Equality and Elite!
And in addition to all alertness for acute topics such as in the report series “Re:”, Arte has a memory. A memory for the evil side of history, be it French colonialism or the German crime against humanity, the Holocaust. Not only here does the view widen. An hour-long documentary about the figure of the century Muhammad Ali by Ken Burns, who has already analyzed the Vietnam War in depth, is as remarkable as the musician biographies on every Friday, concert included.
When Arte asks for a reception at the Berlinale in the Academy of Arts, the Who’s Who from film and television is present. Of course, because of the conversations and business – with Arte you can have a drink on a dreary February evening. And: Arte awareness determines the Arte design, every press folder, every trailer, every divider must be unmistakably artesque. Arte is narcissistic, in some moments even vain to the point of wallpaper TV. The others should please notice that they are only the others.
Quite a few readers will complain now that a fan is writing about his egozine. This is not a wrong thought, but there is also a longing mixed in with all the joy. Even in educated middle-class circles, Arte is the television program that is not switched on in the same way as it is praised. Arte is often – too often – used as an excuse: “I watched TV for a long time yesterday! Arte, of course.”
Arte’s market share does not stand up to these frequent admissions. In France it was 2.9 percent in 2021, in Germany 1.3 percent. The curves on both sides of the Rhine have been pointing upwards for years, and the media center has been accessed by millions. Arte has – hooray! – sent a fanbase over. Of course, more audience would be better, no question. At the same time, the anxious question arises as to what further growth will entail? Success, sorry, has follow-up costs.
In the early years of the Franco-German effort, there was still a cut-off time with hopping sheep – strictly speaking, people in sheep costumes hopping on top of each other. This happened in fierce competition with the then ORB television, where fish swam through the television aquarium. sheep or fish? Undecided to date.
Only one question will probably remain unanswered forever: What did the founding fathers Kohl and Mitterrand see when they switched on Arte?