This year is chockful of important anniversaries in Germany. But I’ll leave the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago and the founding of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland 60 years in the past to others.
No, it’s 2009 and now we can celebrate 25 years of the mediocre morass that is private television in Germany. We can look back on two and a half decades of German media executives squandering a spectacular opportunity.
For the uninitiated: German television stations are divided into two camps – public broadcasters such like ARD and ZDF funded by a hefty license fee and advertising-backed private stations such as Pro7, Sat.1 and anything branded with an RTL.
For Germans of my generation – dubbed Generation Golf after a same-named book – private television arguably had a bigger real impact on their lives than the fall of the Wall. Imagine growing up in a country where television was only available starting at 6 pm and then only with mediocre programming. Care to watch another documentary on cheese-making tonight kids? To tell the truth, West German public broadcasting was only marginally more exciting than what their communist cousins were forced to watch on the other side of the Iron Curtain.
After the government ended the public monopoly on broadcasting in 1984, German television viewers thought they’d just won a ticket to the promised land of entertainment while snooty Teutonic critics feared the country’s average IQ was about to lose a dozen or so points. Unfortunately, private TV has disappointed both groups.
One could argue that Pro7 and RTL are no worse than the boob tube in Britain or the United States – after all, the only thing they show are dubbed ratings-magnets from Hollywood and London or Teutonified versions of American Idol, Big Brother and that banal show about D-list celebrities trapped in the jungle. And, if they don’t have the rights, they just blatantly rip them off (Stromberg this is an Office memo to you).
This is the only good thing about the Great German TV Experiment – it disproves the ideology of radical free marketeers. The public stations still do a much better job than their privately owned brethren who are subjected to competitive pressures. Free market theory would dictate that media executives at Pro7 and RTL would take a chance or two and support the occasionally crazy idea in the hopes of hitting it big. But that isn’t what happens. Instead, they tuck in their heads, hire a few dubbing actors and let everyone down.
It was in the third grade that Mrs. Schoeneck taught me the saying: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Using this saying as a guide, we can see that no one is complementing German television producers. When have you ever heard of some nearby country buying or copying a German television program? Exactly – never.
And it’s not that there wasn’t an occasional shining light to show them the way. At the start of this decade, a tiny music video station known as Viva took some risks and, though long-since gutted by MTV, it still has an impact on the German media landscape. It’s where Charlotte Roche arrived on everyone’s set as a smart, brash host who, at the time, didn’t need talk of anal sex to get our attention. Stefan Raab used to actually be funny and caught the eye of Pro7, which misunderstood the former butcher’s talent and got him to do the kind of exploitative humour for TV Total that only knuckledraggers and Bild readers can appreciate.
Viva was so edgy they knew who Paris Hilton was before we did – and they knew how to use her best: on all fours in a bikini with her mouth shut. At the risk of sounding misogynist, my favourite show was moderated by a post-modern, heterosexual dandy who draped himself in double entendres and his set with an attractive model who was never allowed to speak.
Viva’s success was straight out of the media textbook – it forced MTV to react with its own edgy ideas, spawning the still-funny Christan Ulmen and a wonderful talk show with celebrity handballer Stefan Kretschmar. But one day Viva’s owner got greedy and MTV’s parent Viacom was happy to hand over the cash. End. Of. Innovative. TV.
So bust out some champagne and tune in to a solid documentary over on ZDF – or maybe even call up the GEZ and start paying your TV licence fee. It’s the only appropriate way to celebrate 25 years of private broadcasters in Germany.