Saturday, July 4, 2009

Germany copies US TV

For some decades now, German television has been attempting to copy some of the best ideas from US television -- with mixed success. Late-night talk shows are perhaps the most obvious example, with Germany's Harald Schmidt being undoubtedly the most popular such talk show host. After starting off with really stupid sexist jokes, Schmidt eventually did a wonderful job of finding a German groove for the originally American format. Over the years, he continued to play with the format he once called "Hate Night Talk" and ended up at one point with a French woman alongside him who did not speak great German and therefore made everybody laugh all the more because she repeatedly did not get the joke -- and then made you laugh even more when she came up with something really witty herself. It was a truly European moment, as was the show he did entirely in French (he does not speak French well at all -- he speaks about as well as I do, but that's a different story...). And if you watch the video and realize that no one is laughing, it's because the audience didn't speak French. He went on for an hour anyway -- kudos!

But today, I am writing about the dismal attempt to copy the Daily Show. Germany now has a heute show, and it is absolutely awful. It could not be anything but awful since, to the extent that it is copying the Daily Show, it has absolutely nothing to talk about.

The Daily Show was a beacon of hope for me after the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004. The show can now be streamed in its entirety online, but in 2005 you could only get 30 minutes a week over here on CNN. Watching the show proved to me that there was still an America out there that had its thinking cap on.

But while Der Spiegel says that the Daily Show "mercilessly make fun of Obama's election campaign," in fact Jon Stewart is revered for his criticism of Bush/Cheney at a time when mainstream news media were not asking hard questions. Now that Obama is in office, he still has quite a bit to talk about, such as the idiocy at Fox news, the videotapes of Cheney that keep popping up, Obama putting people in charge of fixing problems they caused, etc.

The problem for Germany's heute show is that there is little to make fun of over here. In comparison to the US, most German politicians are fairly eloquent people who are generally smarter than the general public. And there is nothing in Germany that comes anywhere close either to MSNBC or Fox News. Everything over here seems trapped back in the days of Walter Cronkite, when you still had faith that news moderators were not card-carrying members of any party -- and would certainly never parrot what politicians say or make their own personalities more important than the message.

On German talk shows, there are practically no interruptions at all. But don't take my word for it -- take a look at this video (if you don't speak German, you will still be able to see that people are listening to what the other person is saying) of quite a heated debate on Maybrit Illner's show. If you can understand German, you will quickly see that the speakers have quite a lot of disdain for each other, but it's still a far cry from the kind of nonsense Jon Stewart famously criticized on Crossfire. (Crossfire was off the air shortly afterwards - kudos, Jon).

Stewart was basically asking the two moderators on Crossfire to help keep US politicians honest instead of conducting shouting matches on television. But German newscasters need no such instructions from German comics. When the CDU came up with a poster with mugshots of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, all of the newscasters on the nightly news here reported the event only as a major embarrassment for the CDU, and the poster was taken out of circulation the next day.

Other German talk shows are just as free of interruptions as the one above. Take a look at videos of Anne Will's show (here's one) or Sabine Christiansen's (example of an "interruption" at 7:30, where one conservative person tells the anti-globalisationist that she is "full of it"). That's as bad as it gets here. No McLaughlin Group on German TV.

There is absolutely no need for a German Daily Show, which is why the heute show is doomed to fail if it does not find some other groove to work in.

But that is perhaps a trivial matter. The more important point here is that this comparison reveals just how abysmal reporting is in the US, and how easy it would be to get up to the German standard. No freak shows here.

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