German Television is ‘Low-Quality Schlock for Aging Viewers’

Thomas Rogers, a writer living in Berlin, takes to the pages of the New Republic to describe the oddity of 'Wetten, Dass…?' and the crappiness of German TV in general:

…[T]he mediocrity of [German] TV—and “Wetten Dass..?” in particular—is currently a particular source of national insecurity. Whereas other European countries, like Denmark and France, have impressed international audiences with high-quality shows like “Borgen” and “The Returned,” TV in Germany remains dominated by talk shows, schlocky crime procedurals, mediocre miniseries, and, well, “Wetten Dass..?”—or as a New York Times headline from last year described it, “Stupid German Tricks.” 

…Not only does the 33-year-old “Wetten Dass..?” seem to confirm a lot of the world’s less generous stereotypes of Germans—e.g. humorless, weird, with terrible taste in formalwear—its concept is also awkwardly difficult to explain….

For Hollywood stars used to appearing on “Kimmel” or “Conan,” [Markus] Lanz’s interview techniques—which often involve commenting on female stars’ appearance—can seem jarringly unpleasant and often sexist. When a baffled-looking Cameron Diaz appeared on the show this spring, Lanz asked her to stand up from the couch so two young boys could get a kiss from “one of the most beautiful women in the world.” She instead gave them high fives and awkwardly and silently sat back down.

On a cultural level, the show has also become a symbol of Germany’s continuing struggles to create good television. As television has emerged internationally as the new medium for sophisticated storytelling, public criticisms of the show, and German TV in general, have sharpened. In 2012,Spiegel published an interview with a top German media critic under the headline “Why are German TV shows so lousy?” Unlike the U.S., television in Germany is highly subsidized by the public.

Even if you ignore stunty shows like “Wetten Dass..?,” German narrative offerings have lacked the nuance and verve of high-end British, American, or Scandinavian productions. “Tatort,” the country’s most popular program, is an uneven cop show that often feels several decades out of date, and most other fictional TV shows perpetually reshuffle a few familiar elements (blonde doctor, romantic woes, rural hospital, Bavaria). As Lothar Mikos, the media critic, told Spiegel, the problem isn’t monetary, it’s the opposite: German broadcasters’ enormous bureaucracy and generous funding have largely insulated them from the need to innovate. And since younger people tend to watch American or British shows online anyways, there’s little to dissuade networks from creating more low-quality schlock for aging viewers.

Rogers has subscribed to the donut-hole theory: Germany does highbrow really well and lowbrow OK (but who cares), but the vast middlebrow area is a wasteland.

4 thoughts on “German Television is ‘Low-Quality Schlock for Aging Viewers’

  1. I don’t know… I say this too, and then spend a month in the US watching what my parents watch, and after the first week I am yearning for some decent time with the arte channel, Bayrische Fernsehen, ZDF Kultur/Info/Neo, or 3Sat. Unless you are counting those as highbrow? How about the heute-show with Oliver Welke?

    I don’t get the attraction to “Wetten das” either. Even when Thomas Gottschalk was host (although I suspect he was more interesting in his earlier career days, say, back in the 80s.)

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  2. And since younger people tend to watch American or British shows online anyways…

    They do that, of course, because they don’t want to wait several months until they can watch the synchronized version on German TV. They accept that they have to watch the original version. And they never look back.

    German TV, however, will never allow you to do that. There’s a long tradition, which says: everything must be translated, everything can be translated.
    For several decades we have DVDs where we can decide which sound channel we want. I’m sure this would be possible on TV. I’m sure there are no real technical problems behind this.
    And arte and the other highbrow channels are no exception. I’ve seen subtitled movies there, but those are rare — I guess a synchronized version wasn’t available.
    For some reason, “international” and German TV don’t go together well. For some reason German TV is very “German”.

    It’s a nice thing to say: nobody’s left behind. But it’s not a nice thing to force people to bow down. And that’s what “Wetten das” is all about: Invite some overachievers, some of those “international superstars”. Show them it’s not about them, it’s about us. The little people. The normal ones. The underachievers in real life. They are not famous, but they can do astonishing things. And you, the superstar, have to bow down. Wear cat ears. Kiss a stranger. Be impressed.

    I’ve called this a tradition, but it’s more of a church. It’s about community. The last will be first, and the first will be last. Many have left that church and that makes it worse. The result is that ‘Low-Quality Schlock for Aging Viewers’. (There are parallels to the real church in Germany).
    Is it a result of too much money? Maybe. (Again, parallels to the real church in Germany, which is subsidized from taxes without reaching the people).
    Is it a result of too much bureaucracy? I don’t believe that one.

    There is a long tradition in German TV. An important part of it is “debt”. We pay them. They owe us something. They want to give us what we want. But there is no “we”. So, like a church, they invent a “we”, and those “Volksmusik” music shows (shown above), those TV soaps, those “Wetten Das” shows, those “Tatort” cop shows (every region has its own Tatort), they have one thing in common: they want to tell us who “we” are, and that’s what’s so wrong about it.

    They don’t know who “we” are. They are not even very interested in us, except in TV ratings. They just want to serve us the laziest way.
    They live in a huge bubble. It’s like the Truman Show, only the other way around. They have created their imaginery audience. But less and less can identify with that imaginary “we”.

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  3. As the private stations are usually even worse the bureaucracy of the public ones cannot be the only or main reason.
    I think the money gets wasted because they produce too much. There is not only Tatort. There is some kind or crime/mystery Tatort style film several times a week and shorter ones about TWICE every day (between 18 and 20:00), all from the different ARD (BR, HR, WDR etc.) and ZDF stations. If they focussed a little more and did not produce so much, it would probably get better because they could spend more money/energy on a few good films/series.

    “Wetten dass” has been past its prime since the early 1990s, I have no idea why they keep doing this stuff.

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