Last night saw the return of Germany’s longest running and most successful entertainment TV programme “Wetten, dass”, which can be loosely translated as “I bet you”. True to the Ronseal system of German programming, “Wetten, dass” does exactly what it says on the tin, inviting members of the public to suggest crazy and – in some cases physically dangerous – bets. If accepted, contestants get to demonstrate their skills in front of a live studio audience and of millions of German, Austrian and Swiss viewers at home.
To spice up this simple format, contestants are allocated a celebrity who has to complete an often embarrassing “truth or dare”-type task if the bet is lost. This integration of high-calibre guests into the show is the real secret of its success – this and the immense popularity of Thomas Gottschalk who hosted the show for decades until resigning last year, after a contestant was badly injured on stage.
With Gottschalk now focusing on his remaining sources of income, such as fronting the German advertising campaign for Haribo sweets, it remains to be seen if his successor, former talk show host Markus Lanz, will be as successful in attracting big names to the show. Over the decades, “Wetten, dass” presented not only homegrown talent such as Boris Becker, Karl Lagerfeld or Til Schweiger. The show was also the most effective arena for international stars to reach Europe’s largest audience, the German speaking public.
Particularly musicians used the programme to advertise their latest records. Madonna, Michael Jackson, Elton John, Robbie Williams, Cliff Richard, and many more, all appeared several times on “Wetten, dass”, despite being treated to the weird experience of trying to communicate with the host and the audience through an interpreter and consequently having trouble following the strange goings-on and politically incorrect jokes made by the host.
Luckily for his international guests, Gottschalk’s entertainment value rested to some extent on his flamboyant dress sense, his readiness to drop his trousers on stage if needed – for example to prove that he was wearing the same underwear as folk singer Patrick Lindner – and on his ability to transcend the language barriers separating him from his female guests by a universally intellible and embarrassingly male chauvinist flirting technique.
A whole generation of Germans, a generation also dubbed “Generation Golf“, after the popular Volkswagen car which was first built in the early 1970s, grew up watching “Wetten, dass” on a regular basis and continued to tune in even as more and more channels became available and German TV offered a wider variety of programmes.
Last night, “Wetten, dass” was as big a national event as it had ever been. Millions were watching and in no time #wettendass was trending globally on Twitter – much to the confusion of the largely English tweeting online community. But was the show worth watching? German left-wing newspaper taz seems to disagree. They were quick to list Lanz’s many faux pas and insensitive comments, directed towards German-Turkish comedian Bülent Ceylan in particular.
But what about the show’s entertainment potential and freak quota? Well, in keeping with the “Wetten, dass” traditon, yesterday’s bets included a woman claiming that she was able to distinguish dog breeds by touching their fur. Viewers must have felt reminded of the time when the team behind Germany’s biggest satirical magazine Titanic (similar to Britain’s Private Eye) infiltrated the show and staged a hoax involving a man who had put in a bet saying that he could distinguish the shades of coloured pencils by licking their tips.
The show remains an easy target for satire and derision. But the big question mark currently hovering over the future of “Wetten, dass” is whether Lanz can successfully replace the sometimes offensive but always charmingly eccentric Gottschalk – others have failed before him. It is also unclear if the “hidden attractions” of the programme will continue to outlast the tired looking main premise of the show, which has long run its course and cannot easily compete with more innovative formats such as “Schlag den Raab.” This week’s edition of the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT argues that German TV is better than its poor reputation, but judging by the many scathing comments on Twitter, “Wetten, dass” will need to work hard to improve if it wants to remain the flagship of Germany’s public channel ZDF and defend its position as the incarnation of the nation’s favourite Saturday night entertainment.