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Satire & German TV don’t mix

Maybe I’m just spoiled by Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Saturday Night Live or even South Park. Maybe it’s just too much to ask that we’ll ever get anything like this piece of brilliance. But after seeing the latest attempt at political “satire” (yes, those are scare quotes!) on German TV, I can’t help but feel incredibly frustrated.

Not the first in satire

Yesterday, public broadcaster Das Erste started airing “Satire Gipfel” (full video), which replaced the slightly more bearable “Scheibenwischer” that ended its 28 year run last year. The makers, who apparently had difficulties coming up with a grammatically correct name for their show, wanted to move away from the “SPD cabaret” that “Scheibenwischer” supposedly practised. They’re off to a bad start.

“Congratulations, you’ve won a new satire show,” show runner Mathias Richling opened. Yes, apparently we should be grateful that Das Erste is spending our license fees on such a astute show. The inaugural issue of “Satire Gipfel” featured five performers, ranging in quality from bad to worse.

After the ailing Ingolf Lück, who back in the 90s moderated the pretty funny “Wochenshow“, spent roughly ten minutes on the Abwrackprämie (exciting stuff!), “up and coming”  comedian Philip Weber quickly returned us to the constant of German satire: U.S.-bashing!

Examples: “At last, the American troops are returning home from Iraq. If they find their way back!” or “A plane crashed into the Hudson River and no one blamed Al Qaeda. Under Bush, everyone would have said that those were Islamic  suicide-geese!” Ha, ha! Too bad that it did happen under Bush because this story is over two-months-old news. It got a little bit better afterwards, but only because Weber “borrowed” Chris Rock’s “bullet control” sketch from 1999.

Richling saved the evening from total disaster with an acceptable impression of Germany’s new minister for the economy zu Guttenberg. During the show, the director made a point of constantly cutting to Ulla Schmidt, the health minister sitting in the front row, who was apparently enjoying herself, a sure sign that the makers didn’t do their job properly.

“Satire Gipfel” was followed by alleged late night show “Schmidt & Pocher”, hosted by Oliver Pocher, who is actually pretty good a spoofing popular culture, and Harald Schmidt, who is supposed to be pretty good at spoofing politics but who has long passed his date of expiry. Pocher will leave the show in April, so that Schmidt, in the words of producer Fred Kogel, can reach his “full potential” in the election year 2009, making a show with “sophistication and intellect, comparable to Jon Stewart“.  Only problem is that Schmidt returns from his summer break  on September 17th, ten days before the election to the Bundestag.

Das Erste’s main competitor, ZDF, also a public broadcaster, airs the monthly “Neues aus der Anstalt“, where hosts and guests play patients and doctors of a mental hospital who comment on the madness outside their walls. It really sounds funnier than it is.

The only decent satire outing on German TV, extra 3, is buried on the regional channel NDR, ironically airing on the same time slot as “Satire Gipfel”.

So what’s stopping people from producing a fun and politically relevant show? And it’s not like there isn’t enough material to work with. We also have two 24h cable news channels (n-tv and N24) and two business news channels (Bloomberg and Deutsches Anleger Fernsehen). Plus, one edition of “Anne Will” should keep even a moderately gifted satirist busy for a week.

Instead, politics are most likely to blame. German politicians treat the public broadcaster like their own private press office, as exemplified by the current dispute over Nikolaus Brender, news director of the ZDF. CDU forces under the leadership of Hesse’s governor Roland Koch want Brender out, ostensibly due to declining ratings of the news programs. Critics say Koch wants to install a CDU-friendly person as Brender’s replacement.

That’s actually not as shocking as it should be. It is common practise that the big parties, who sit on the boards of the public broadcasters, divide influential positions between them. It is only due to Koch’s ineptness at doing so that this turned into a public spectacle.

So it’s understandable that few people inside the broadcasters have an interest in hard-hitting satire. After all, angering your party-aligned overlords is bad for the career.

2 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. jessica

    “Schmidt & Pocher, hosted by Oliver Pocher, who is actually pretty good a spoofing popular culture, and Harald Schmidt, who is supposed to be pretty good at spoofing politics but who has long passed his date of expiry.

    … that alone was wonderful! yes, not everyone can be Jon Stewart. why is it that whenever public broadcasters in Germany try to appeal to anyone outside their core audience (the late bloomers, generation 60+), it’s usually unbearable?

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