Two commentators in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung here try to explain why so much German TV kind of sucks. Adrian Kreye here (G) maintains that "America is unbeatable" when it comes to television, because American TV mirrors the "experience-world" (Erlebniswelt) of higher-class social groups at a high level of quality. I’ve heard this from many Germans as well — even those who see American mainstream movies as superficial trash may love series such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, or Gray’s Anatomy. These high-end series offer clever writing, original ideas, sharply-drawn characters — exactly the sort of thing you rarely see on German TV. Not that all of these series play well in Germany — precisely because they are so finely-tuned to the experience of American social groups, Kreye notes, the best series often flop in Germany, while generic police thrillers like "CSI" do well. Thus, Kreye’s not saying that the solution is to import American shows; rather it’s to create the conditions in Germany that will lead to better television. Kreye suggests that the American practice of offering important players (actors, writers, directors) a percentage of revenue cultivates talent much better than the German system, which is more oriented toward lump-sum payments and buyouts.
Christopher Keil then piles on. He points to what I call the "doughnut-hole" structure of European popular culture. Let me here define the Hammel Doughnut-Hole Theory of the European Cultural Landscape™ (HDHTECL): At the high end, we find subsidized "serious" entertainment such as symphonies, operas, museums, and contemporary jazz and dance. Often uncompromising, usually of high quality. At the low end, "entertainment" for the masses: tabloid confessional talk-shows, "folk music" festivals positively eerie in their frozen-in-amber 1960s campiness, soft-porn video clips and movies, ludicrously exploitative call-in contests, etc. In the middle, there’s some good stuff, but not much, and with little cross-cultural appeal.
We may contrast this with the Anglo-Saxon world. The middle-brow consumer in Britain and the U.S. is well-served — not least becase she’s likely to have lots of disposable income. She can watch the above-named TV series or quirky but non-confrontational movies like Little Miss Sunshine or Sideways. For music, she can see a taffetta-and-morning-coat opera production which would be seen as ludicrously stuffy by European standards, and even a newly-composed opera by someone like John Adams or Philip Glass. This opera will be comfortingly tonal and possibly even "uplifting." For the less abmitious, there’s a choice of hundreds of indie-rockers, some of whom are damned creative. Most of this stuff is classic middle-brow entertainment, defined as having some cultural cachet and not insulting the viewer’s intelligence; while avoiding formal innovation and direct challenges to middle-class values. (The debate over whether all this middlebrow entertainment is Good for Us — about which I have Complex Views — will have to wait for another post).
So much for my theory, which Keil seems to share. The problem with German TV, Keil suggests (G), is that educated Germans are "more and more radically turning away" from television as a whole, because they see the whole thing as increasingly dominated by dreck for the masses. Sensing that educated viewers are ignoring TV, even the large publicly-funded television stations are reorienting their fare towards the lower orders, perpetuating this vicious circle. Of course, strong anti-TV sentiment from people like this has always existed in German society, but has increased since 1984, when private television channels (which are allowed to aim much farther below the belt than public ones) were first permitted.
It’s an interesting argument, but unfortunately, one part of it — that is, that educated Germans are increasingly viewing no television whatsoever — needs to be backed up with empirical evidence, which Keil doesn’t provide. German journalists tend to move in pretty stuffy, insular little circles, and sometimes talk about things people in their social circles are doing as if they were national trends. So, does anyone know whether he’s right?