The big television ratings review 2021. Part 1: ZDF, ARD.


2021 was the year in which the media and the public in Germany most questioned the public TV companies, ZDF and ARD: should they be merged to save on licence fees? Should their governance be changed? Should they close some thematic channels? Are public Tv stations only focused on the older audience instead of addressing younger generations?

The data of the German TV viewership in 2021 tell a different story, whose reasons are worth investigating.

There has never been so much demand for public television: 2021, of course, was dominated by big sports events like the Olympics and the Euro 2021, but information programmes did still their job during the second year of the pandemic.

And nobody can beat ZDF and ARD here in Germany about quality information – news shows, political talks, reportage and scientific divulgation. You can be critical toward some hosts and the debates among the candidates of the Federal Elections, but all these programs scored top audiences.

The leading private television channels held their ground, but they all lost viewers compared to 2020. Again, international sporting events are the main reason for that. More generally, the market shares spread over more and more special-interest channels, including RTL-Up and Sat.1, thus making TV consumption more fragmented than ever. If you add the transition from linear to on-demand players, you see that only a few champions remain.

Despite all the discussions, the two main public channels have been the year champions: ZDF and ARD. Let´s start our 2021 TV review from these channels.

The top 30 German TV channels of 2021.

Here is the official 2021 ranking made by TV % share in the population older than three years. I only add one small note for those who are not familiar with the German TV landscape: the ARD Dritte is the sum of the six macro-regionals channels run under the ARD umbrella.

Source: AGF.DE – Download: PNGDATA


schermata 2022 01 07 alle 14.08.44

And the winner is… ZDF! For the tenth year in a row, ZDF maintained its market leadership in total audience in 2021 – and the superiority has never been greater than this time.

In 2021, with an annual market share of 14.7%, it achieved its highest market share in no less than 26 years. In 1995, ZDF was also at 14.7 per cent: at that time, Sat.1 had the same market share – now, a modest 5.2 per cent.


If you put together all ZDF family channels – ZDF, ZDFNeo (factual entertainment and fiction for a younger audience), ZDFInfo (Documentaries and Reportage) – the overall market share reached a remarkable 21.4%.

Big moments.

The “lighthouses” have been: 

  • The Federal Election coverage – debates, talks, news
  • The European Football Championship
  • The Summer Olympics

Those events also helped ZDF to attract a younger audience. Worth to mention is also the very much “nostalgic” moment of German viewers, that celebrated the comeback of the Saturday Night show “Wetten, dass..?” with 14.46 million viewers (45.9 per cent) on 6 November.


Fiction thrived, too, especially crime: it seems that people in Lockdown (the second German Lockdown between December 2020 and May 2021 has been among the longest worldwide), love crime series even more than usual. Where “usual” means that crime, for all people living in central and northern Europe, are more than a TV fiction genre: they are tradition!

ZDF could count on a successful Friday evening: someone could have been sceptical about programming two satirical shows on the same day in a row – “Heute Show” (satirical news show, with a 50+ age audience) and “ZDF Magazine Royale” (a mix of satire, comedy and investigative journalism, for a millennial audience) – but as a matter of facts, the choice delivered results.

Another big TV moment has been the “Zapfenstreich” for Chancellor Merkel, the military ceremony that many of us watched live. How many, on a cold berliner Thursday evening on the 2 December 2021? More then ten million people, counting together ZDF and the news channels that broadcasted the event live:

  • 9,04 Million via ZDF
  • 440.000 via Phoenix (ARD)
  • 375.000 via Welt TV (NTV)

Finally, the online video library, ZDF Mediathek

  • +28% YoY, up to 5,91 Million visits per day 
  • and 66,61 Million people reached per month 

The public TV video libraries play a prominent role in the online video consumption of both older and younger audiences.

GO DEEPER. ARD/ZDF Online Media Study 2021: video libraries and streaming services.

DAS ERSTE, another winner of 2021.

Die ARD - Adresse und Kontakt

As the ZDF, das Erste (ARD first channel) also enjoyed the effects of sports events and the strength of the crime genre, that for Das Erste is, first and foremost, represented by the “Tatort” (“Crime scene”), unbeatable since fifty years.

The “Tatort” episode “Tatort: Rhythm and Love” (shot in Münster) was seen by 14,371 million on 2 May (market share 39.6 per cent). We were still in Lockdown: nothing else to do on Sunday evening, apart from watching a well-written, well-directed crime.

The annual market share here increased by 0.8 percentage points to 12.1% For Das Erste, it was the best year since 2016.


Das Erste struggled, however, to keep up with ZDF: the latter can retain viewers until the night when Das Erste loses the most audience. That has a lot to do with journalistic shows: the ZDF “Heute Journal” (broadcasted on 21:45) is an evening programming pillar for many people. Broadcasted in the late evening, the political talk show “Markus Lanz” had its best shares ever across the whole population.

Among 14 to 49-year-olds, Das Erste held up better than ZDF: with a market share of 8.1%, das Erste had its best annual share since 2006.


Go deeper.

👉🏿 AGF Videoforschung Data Research Group

👉🏿 DWDL Medienmagazin

The big German TV review 2021.

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