German TV will never be the same again

It’s the end of an era in German television in more ways than one.

First of all, Austrian singer, actor and entertainer Peter Alexander died yesterday aged 84. Here is a longer appraisal in German.

If you’re a German person of a certain age, you grew up with Peter Alexander. You’ve seen him in films, you’re parents probably had at least one of his records (mine did) and the music and variety shows he hosted were a fixture of Saturday evening TV. I didn’t particularly care for his “Schlager” songs, though he was a wonderful operetta tenor. I used to think the film adaption of Ralph Benatzky’s operetta Im Weißen Rössl (The White Horse Inn) from 1960 was the best movie I’d ever seen, when I was ten year old. I still like the music and the 1960 adaption starring Peter Alexander is the definitive version for me. This is the Peter Alexander I will remember, the gifted comedian and operetta tenor.

However, Peter Alexander’s death will be overshadowed by another entertainment headline, for Thomas Gottschalk has announced his retirement from hosting Wetten dass?, the most popular show on German TV, after 24 years on the show’s 30th anniversary. Gottschalk’s announcement. Gottschalk’s announcement is connected to the tragic accident on the show in December which left a 23-year-old contestant paralyzed. Here is a more detailed article in German.

I am one of the comparatively few Germans who don’t watch Wetten dass? and haven’t watched it in ages. I actually liked the show when it debuted in 1981, when there was more focus on the various bets (improbable feats performed live by the contestants, while celebrity guests bet whether they contestant will succeed or not), when a bet was more likely a feat of memory or mental skills such as one guy reciting the names of all popes to date, rather than physical stunts such as someone jumping over moving cars (which was the stunt during which contestant Samuel Koch was grievously injured) and when the celebrity guest stars and music acts were more an afterthought than the focus of the show. Besides, I was seven at the time and seven-year-olds do have a somewhat different idea of good TV than adults.

But when the original host Frank Elsner retired and handed over the reigns to Thomas Gottschalk, the show changed. The celebrity guest stars took up more and more space, the bets became less important and Gottschalk would continuously overrun the allotted time, because he just wouldn’t shut up and kept on chatting with the celebrity guests. The names became bigger as well. While the early shows featured local celebrity, later shows featured Hollywood stars, international rock and pop stars, the Duchess of York and Gerhard Schröder in the first appearance of an acting German chancellor on a non-political/news program on German TV ever. Once Gottschalk took over, Wetten dass? quickly turned into a glorified chat show and I have never cared for chat shows. They bore me.

I actually chanced to see a bit of the show tonight, between the end of one program and the beginning of another. Take That were there and the German bandleader Max Raabe. Naomi Campbell was one of the celebrity guest stars on the red sofa, as was German actor Jan Josef Liefers. I like Take That, I like Max Raabe, I like Jan Josef Liefers. And yet the show was boring. I fell asleep during the twenty minutes or so that I was tuned in to Wetten dass? I don’t think there was a bet in that time, though there probably was music.

However, the fact that I don’t watch Wetten dass? has left me the cultural odd person out on several occasions, because Wetten dass? is one of those shows that everybody watches (the soap opera Lindenstraße and the crime drama Tatort are the others and I don’t watch them either) and discusses the next morning at the proverbial watercooler. It’s one of the few genuine family shows left on German TV, offering something for every age group (and boring the other age groups to death). However, many people just watch out of habit. I have often observed elderly people discuss the show, complaining about all those rockstars whose music they don’t like and American filmstars they don’t know. They are as bored as me during large portions of the show, yet the continue watching.

I don’t have a problem with Thomas Gottschalk himself. A few years ago, I saw him live as part of the studio audience at a TV-show he hosted. Not Wetten dass?, but a one-of event show intended to promote science and technology (I’d gotten free tickets via one of the sponsors). And I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Live and in person, Gottschalk was charming, funny and entertaining. That evening I understood for the first time why he was so popular and why his salary, paid for by the license fee, was so high. But the undeniable charm he had live has never translated to his TV appearances for me.

And to be honest, I think he made the right decision retiring from Wetten dass?. Even the people who watch and enjoy the show have been remarking that Wetten dass? is past its prime. Two years ago, Gottschalk was given a young and female co-host, Swiss model Michelle Hunziker. Ms. Hunziker didn’t have much to add to the show asides from being nice to look at. What is more, while Wetten dass? is still considered compulsory viewing overall, it has been steadily losing its hold among younger viewers who prefer the antics of Stefan Raab or Dieter Bohlen. Wetten dass? may be a subject for watercooler conversations, but I rarely hear my students discussing it. Even the accident in the December edition was not a big topic at school the next day. So I think it was the right time for Gottschalk to leave. It would probably also be the right time to lay the old warhorse Wetten dass? to rest, particularly after the accident in December, but I doubt it will happen. Wetten dass? is still the ZDF’s highest rated show, except for football matches and the like. They won’t let it go so easily.

However, today marks the end of an era in German TV on another, deeper level. If you are my age, you grew up with the peculiarly German institution of the Saturday night TV show. Saturday night shows were variety shows in the classic sense. A bit of quiz and games, a bit of music, a few comedy skits, a few celebrity guests, a host and a pretty assistant in a glittery gown. And the TV ballet. Can’t forget the TV ballet.

Those shows were designated family viewings and they got huge ratings back in the 1970s and 1980s. The late Peter Alexander found his biggest success doing Saturday night shows and Saturday night TV catapulted Thomas Gottschalk from talented radio and chat show host to superstar.

But Saturday Night TV as it was when I was a kid is gone. Wetten dass? is the last of the great Saturday night shows and oddly enough, the last to debut. All of the others, Einer Wird Gewinnen, Dalli Dalli, Verstehen Sie Spaß, Lass Dich Überraschen, Melodien für Millionen, Zum Blauen Bock, Ein Kessel Buntes (which was the East German version of the phenomenon), have long since been retired and their hosts have for the most part long since gone to that great television studio in the sky.

The Volksmusik shows, which often occupy the same Saturday evening slot and feature an endless array of faux folksy pop music and inanely cheerful hosts, are still going strong, but they’re not the same thing, as they have never been aimed at the full family audience but at elderly viewers, i.e. the 60 to 99 demographic. Volksmusik shows are niche shows, even if the niche is very big, since elderly people aren’t well served by TV either.

I haven’t actually watched Saturday night shows in twenty years or more. Since they are designated family viewing, Saturday night shows tend to become incredibly uncool once you hit your teens. However, these shows were a part of German television history, they were one of the few things that the whole family – grandparents, parents and children – could watch together. And since weekend evening television isn’t particularly family friendly, those shows were sometimes the only thing kids could watch on the one night they were allowed to stay up late. For all their corniness (and believe me, they were corny), these shows were a part of our culture and I for one am sad to see them go.

So rest in peace to the Saturday night show.

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9 Responses to German TV will never be the same again

  1. Sherwood says:

    Thanks for the link. I vaguely remember Peter Alexander from my Hausfrau’s tv playing in the other room, when I was a student in Vienna in 1971-2.

  2. Cora says:

    That would’ve been right at the height of his TV popularity. And of course Peter Alexander was Austrian himself.

    His TV shows were usually cheesy – Saturday night shows always were – but he also was a fine comedy actor and operetta tenor. Charley’s Tante, a cross-dressing comedy, and Im Weißen Rössl are both worth watching. And of course, Im Weißen Rössl also has lovely Austrian scenery (shot at the shores of Wolfgangssee) and great music to go with it.

  3. Estara says:

    I only watched Wetten, dass in its entirety when Frank Elstner was the host. I did see some of the early Thomas Gottschalk shows in parts, but when I was a student I had taped a lot of shows in the UK and bought a lot of videotapes there, too (did 10 months as an au-pair in 1988/89 and 9 months as a foreign language assistant at two comprehensives in 1990/91). As soon as I had those I tended to not watch German programming much. The third programmes sometimes, hmm. MTV as a background music to reading a lot.

    For the record I always liked the brainy bets best, too.

    I adore 50s and 60s Peter Alexander in the movies and his really old schlager, as well, just not the stuff he sang later (although Der Papa wirds schon richten is a great song as a basis for a birthday song for a fater ^^). I’m sad he wasn’t able to show much of his jazz skills as the German audience didn’t really want him for that – that’s a whole subgenre of musical entertainment that seemed to have vanished completely for about twenty years (I think the fun chanson singers or someone like Götz Alsmann -sp?- might be successors to it) – Paul Kuhn, Bill Ramsey, Caterina Valente – who I think was the queen of entertainment at the same time that Peter Alexander was (and who had international success), and others.

    This is a lovely homage and so true.

    • Cora says:

      Seems like we both preferred Frank Elsner’s approach to Thomas Gottschalk’s. And let’s not forget the third Wetten dass? host, the luckless Wolfgang Lippert whom absolutely no one liked.

      I agree that a lot of the entertainers of the 1950, 60s and 70s were multi-talented people and often a lot better than the sometimes insipid songs they had to sing. You forgot Harald Juhnke, BTW. Very few of today’s German entertainers come close. Götz Alzman, Max Raabe perhaps, Olli Dietrich.

  4. Estara says:

    I never much saw Harald Juhnke as a jazz singer, but he certainly was a chansonier. *nod nod*

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