It’s dead, Jim – On the Cancellation of “Wetten Dass?”

Yesterday evening, I flipped through my TV listings magazine, switched on the TV, surfed right over public channels, found an episode of NCIS, realised that I had seen it before and remembered it pretty well, switched off the TV to design an e-book cover and do some translation work. And so I managed to miss the most momentous announcement on German TV in approximately twenty years. Namely the announcement that Wetten Dass? is cancelled and will end after three more shows this fall. Here is an English language article about the cancellation from Yahoo News.

Now this is a big deal, as big a deal as David Letterman announcing his retirement was for the US, because Wetten Dass? was the most popular program on German TV for decades and may still be, for all I know. There is also another parallel between the two huge TV announcements of this week, namely that both Wetten Dass? and Letterman’s show were examples of undead zombie television, programs that were years past their prime and yet still shambling on, animated by the dark forces of habit and TV officials unwilling to try something else.

I’ll let the Americans comment about the Letterman retirement and focus on Wetten Dass?, if only because I’ve actually seen more than one and a half episodes, though not in the past twenty years. I’ve written about the show before, on the occasion of long-time host Thomas Gottschalk announcing his retirement. My verdict then was quite similar to my verdict now. Wetten Dass? was a relic from another television era, an era that’s long gone. It had a good long run, but maybe it’s time to put the old warhorse to rest.

Wetten Dass? is the last surviving example of that curious German TV beast, the Saturday night family show. Like all Saturday night family shows, Wetten Dass? was a mix of game show, variety show and chat show with a charismatic host, a pretty female assistant in a glittery evening gown and a live studio audience. Older examples of the genre often featured dance interludes by the TV station’s own ballet troop as well. Saturday night shows pretended to offer something for every viewer from six to ninety and were in theory something the whole family could sit down and watch together. In practice, any given viewer enjoyed only maybe ten percent of the show (and not the same ten percent either) and was bored to death during the remaining ninety percent.

Saturday night shows were huge in the 1960s and 1970s, when there were only three TV channels in West Germany (unless you were one of those lucky ducks who got Dutch or East German TV and thus had one or two extra channels), all of which were publicly operated (similar to the BBC in Britain, only without the cool programming the BBC sometimes manages) and one of which seemed to believe that reruns of newsreels from WWII were the best Saturday night programming ever. And Saturday night was TV night – unlike in the US, where it’s a apparently a kiss of death slot – because it was the only night that kids were allowed to stay up late, because there was no school on Sunday (we still had school every second Saturday throughout my highschool years). And while we all would have preferred something other than bland variety and game shows, we still watched, because – hey – at least it wasn’t WWII newsreels, and besides, the music acts were pretty good sometimes.

When Wetten Dass? premiered in 1981 (I watched the debut BTW), we were still stuck in the three channels only public TV era. However, that era was about to end, though the public TV stations didn’t know it. In 1985, private television finally came to West Germany – the biggest gift Helmut Kohl ever gave us and the reason I’ll always have a soft spot for the old pear*. At first, private TV was only available in big cities and only to those willing to pony up the extra fees for cable TV (which my parents refused to do). But if you had cable, you suddenly got ten or even fifteen TV channels instead of the usual three. A lot of it was still junk – regional programs and the like. But you also got plucky little start-up channels that ran American cop shows and action shows, soap operas, music videos, cartoons – in short, all the good stuff that the public channels wouldn’t run, because it was deemed violent American trash and harmful for children. But we watched it. We watched it all and couldn’t get enough.

I had to wait until 1989 (February 27, to be exact, and it’s very telling that I remember the exact date after 25 years) until people figured out how to broadcast extra TV channels via the terrestrial antenna network, then I finally got to enjoy the glories of private television, too. And enjoy it I did. My personal golden age of television were the late 1980s and early 1990s, a time to enjoy all the trashy cartoons and soap operas and music videos and violent American action shows that the public TV folks didn’t want us to watch. It’s probably no coincidence that I stopped watching Wetten Dass? at around the same time. When Frank Elstner, the original host, left in 1987 and Thomas Gottschalk took over, the focus of the show gradually shifted away from the bets and variety elements towards a glorified chat show format. And since I found chat shows boring, I stopped watching. Never mind that I was in my mid teens by that point and of an age where Saturday night family shows were the dullest thing on the planet, something that only little kids and old people watched.

But though Thomas Gottschalk’s version of Wetten Dass? did not appeal to me, he did a good job of keeping the old warhorse trotting on through a radically changed TV landscape. Now whatever you think of Thomas Gottschalk, he is charismatic and knows what he’s doing (plus, he’s really great when seen live, as I had the chance to observe a couple of years ago). And what Gottschalk did to keep Wetten Dass? thriving in his 24-year-tenure as host (briefly interrupted by the interregnum of Wolfgang Lippert, whom no one could stand) is bring in stars. Not just German TV stars and German pop singers, but the really big names. Hollywood stars, international pop stars, minor royalty, politicians. And the stars came, not because they had any interest in Wetten Dass? (in fact, most international guest stars seem to have had zero clue what the show was about and what they were supposed to do), but because it was the highest rated show on German TV and thus ideal for promoting a new movie or a new album or just themselves.

Under Thomas Gottschalk, Wetten Dass? turned from Saturday night game and variety show to the show where you could see all of the big international stars – though you probably had to sit through three and a half hours of drivel to get a three minute or a five minute interview and a film trailer. Meanwhile, the actual core of the show, the bets where people bet that they could perform seemingly impossible feats such as recognizing coloured pencils by their taste, squeezes thirty seven people into a Volkswagen Beetle or recite all popes from heart, were increasingly marginalized.

Thomas Gottschalk announced his retirement in 2011, a few months after a bet went disastrously wrong and left a contestant paralyzed for life. But the ratings were already declining by that point. The show had been slightly retooled a few years before and Gottschalk had been given an assistant, Swiss model Michelle Hunzicker, who was pretty, blonde, looked good in an evening gown and had a rather charming accent. Coincidentally, Ms. Hunzicker was also the one person in the studio who actually knew what to do when contestant Samuel Koch was hit by a car, while trying to leap over it. While everybody else was still standing around, looking stunned, Ms. Hunzicker made sure that the cameras were turned off, an ambulance and a doctor called.

Thomas Gottschalk’s retirement would have been the moment to put the show to rest. And if they had discontinued Wetten Dass? back then, people would still fondly remember the show. However, the broadcaster ZDF brought in a new host, Markus Lanz, a guy who hosted a daily late night chat show as well as a cooking show. Markus Lanz also got a new assistant and one who couldn’t have been more different from Michelle Hunzicker at that, namely Cindy aus Marzahn, an overweight comedienne famous for pretending to by a lower class woman from the Berlin neighbourhood of Marzahn. A lot of people hated the appointment of Cindy aus Marzahn, though I actually felt it was one of the ZDF’s better idea, if only because Cindy so totally does not match the stereotype of the pretty blonde assistant to the male show host.

During Markus Lanz’ tenure, the ratings plummeted drastically down to an all-time low of 5.85 million viewers (which is still a lot higher than most other programs get, only not compared to the ratings Wetten Dass? used to have). The international stars still showed up to promote their latest projects and were as confused as ever regarding what the show was about, however, by now they also publicly aired their confusion, because whatever it was that Thomas Gottschalk did to make the Hollywood stars play along, did not exist in Lanz’ repertoire. And so Denzel Washington called the show charmingly old-fashioned, while Tom Hanks and Halle Berry felt, as if they had been taken hostage, and Hanks also wondered why whoever was responsible for that show hadn’t been fired (more in this post – scroll down past a bunch of other stuff).

The debate even reached the New York Times, which reacted with a stunningly offensive article, in which they basically called the show stupid and Germans stupid for watching it, when we could be watching (and making) beautifully complex and challenging television dramas about middle class drug dealers, middle class philanderers in the suburbs, middle class Mormons in polygamous marriages or middle class CIA agents torturing terrorists (not middle class, that’s why they’re terrorists) instead. Never mind that none of the wonderfully complex “quality dramas” peddled by the likes of HBO or Showtime have ever been a success in Germany. People tune in, are very puzzled at what the hell American TV showrunners were smoking when they came up with that stuff, shake their head and change the channel to watch CSI instead.

Besides, what killed Wetten Dass? was not the fact that Tom Hanks thinks everyone responsible for the show should be fired (because Tom Hanks is not the director of the ZDF) or that the New York Times thinks it’s stupid (because the New York Times is not director of the ZDF either) or the fact that Markus Lanz is not Thomas Gottschalk. It’s also not that “the times are too cynical and cold for such a fine piece of family entertainment without sarcasm” (which is how host Markus Lanz explains the cancellation) nor is it because viewers dobn’t know what they want, as this German radio journalist blogged, nor is it because TV broadcasters are trying to destroy the family (by cancelling family shows?) or foster crime and violence by broadcasting crime dramas (most of which are so staid and dull the only violence involved is done to the audience) or because people are too uneducated to understand the show (too uneducated for a show that was always pretty brainless?), as some of the more out there commenters on German news sites said (Yes, I know. Never read the comments, unless you want to lose your faith in humanity).

No, the reason Wetten Dass? died is because a show, one that’s pretty expensive to make at that, that tries to offer something for everybody no longer works in the current TV climate. Back when Wetten Dass? premiered, we had three TV channels and were literally taken hostage by their programming (honestly, Tom Hanks, if you want to know what pain is, try watching pre-private TV German television for a week). Now I have satellite TV with approx. 300 channels (no idea how many there are, it’s been a while since I counted them). And if I want to, I can watch literally every TV program in the world via my PC and the internet. So why should I bother with Wetten Dass?, when I can watch the latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or the new season of Game of Thrones within a day of the original broadcast?

Nowadays, nobody has to bother with Wetten Dass? anymore to see their favourite film or pop star. Instead, you can watch them interviewed on US late night shows via the Internet, you can listen to their music via YouTube or Spotify or buy the album on iTunes, you can see trailers for all the cool new films as soon as they are released, you can follow them on Twitter. If the bets were more your thing, there are thousands of clips on YouTube of people doing the sort of challenge Wetten Dass? was once famous for. And you don’t have to sit through three hours of crap to get to the one good bit.

And indeed, this is the part that those who lament the end of Wetten Dass? as the end of “intelligent and well made television” (Yeah, right) are missing. Because the alternative to Wetten Dass? are not the talent shows and matchmaking shows and other so-called reality shows of private television. Nor is it wall to wall repeats of CSI or NCIS or explosion heavy entertainment of the German cop show Alarm für Cobra 11. No, the alternative to Wetten Dass? is the latest episode of your current favourite show, straight from the US or UK or wherever it aired. It’s that new awesome show that your online pals keep raving about, the one that no one in your country knows about yet. It’s that summer blockbuster you missed last year on DVD. It’s a DVD marathon of an old favourite show without commercials and interruptions. It’s all the Marvel Avengersverse films, watched in quick succession. It’s reruns of The Muppets Show on some obscure cable channel. It’s a niche cultural programme interviewing your favourite writer. It’s that wonderful movie you only ever saw once thirty years ago, but never forgot. It’s the umpteenth complete Star Wars rewatch.

The alternative to Wetten Dass? is whatever you want to watch, whenever you want to watch it. It’s freedom. And Wetten Dass? really cannot compare. The show might have survived, as a chat show presenting international stars (Circus HalliGalli is doing quite well for itself with that concept) or as a game show or as harmless entertainment catering to elderly viewers and families with young children. But it could not survive trying to be all things to all people.

A lot of those who lament the end of Wetten Dass? don’t get this. They lament the end of a television era that – let’s be honest – was frequently dull and terrible and incredibly restrictive regarding what we were allowed to watch. They don’t understand that they need only get on the Internet or fire up the DVD player and they can watch literally anything they want, even if it’s a complete rerun of Diese Drombuschs or Drei Damen vom Grill or Praxis Doktor Bülowbogen, (three old German TV shows that encompass the full horror that was German public TV in the 1980s for me).

But do you know who gets it? Frank Elstner, creator and first host of Wetten Dass?. On the night his baby was euthanized, he tweeted (yes, Frank Elstner tweets), “This is a shock to the system, everything else would be a lie. But the future is the net. I’m going to be there. Looking forward to it.”

*Helmut Schmidt, the previous chancellor, believed that private television would be a greater danger than nuclear power, which is flat out ridiculous. And that was years before Schmidt went totally off the deep end and started praising dictators.

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3 Responses to It’s dead, Jim – On the Cancellation of “Wetten Dass?”

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    Fascinating stuff. (On how “stupid” German tv is or Germans are for watching it, boggle. Hadn’t the writer ever watched any of the crap that *we* put out???)

    • Cora says:

      Yeah, I also find it mindboggling that a journalist from the country that gave the world Jerry Springer and televangelists would dare to complain about the supposedly stupid television programming of other nations.

      Never mind that there is a cultural component to what is considered “good” in television and other media. For example, from a German POV I find late night chat shows like David Letterman’s or Jay Leno’s unwatchable (and almost every attempt to import the format to Germany has failed), yet millions of Americans obviously disagree. I also find that Jon Stewart parody news show (The Daily Show?) strangely old-fashioned, since over here parody news programs are something that was big in the 1980s and 1990s. And a lot of those HBO or Showtime dramas that win awards in the US fail to find success in Germany, because no one understands what’s supposed to be so good about watching unpleasant white middle class guys do things that inevitably involve drugs and adultery and maybe torture and the fight against terror nor does anybody know why they should care.

      There were cultural reasons behind the development of the Saturday night show and why many people have fond feelings for it, just as there were the popularity of Wetten Dass?. I no more expect a US journalist to get Wetten Dass? than I expect a German journalist to get the Superbowl. Yet we don’t get German journalists writing articles about how the Superbowl is stupid and the fact that many Americans watch it is indicative of American stupidity.

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