Political talk shows on German TV
Just entertainment?

There seems to be a real flood of talk shows.
There seems to be a real flood of talk shows. | Photo (detail): dandanian © iStockphoto

Political talk shows like “Anne Will”, “hart aber fair”, “Menschen bei Maischberger”, “Beckmann” and “Illner” are all over ARD and ZDF in the late evening. Does the wide variety of talk shows degrade the quality of the format?

Political talk shows have been around for decades, starting with the famous Drei nach Neun, Presseclub and Bonner Runde. Both public and private broadcasters regularly include them in their programming, and for good reason: they have a number of benefits for the stations. The format is comparatively cheap, the shows can be effectively tailored to suit audiences, and they build station brands around distinctive host personalities. They also offer audience participation and, since they are live, can cover current political events in a seemingly detailed and thorough manner.

Inflationary format

At this point there seems to be a real flood of talk shows, and not just at ARD, which changed its programming in 2011. Other stations have picked up the format as well. The discussions and debates are all over television now, but not always laden with the type of content one should be able to expect, say critics. When Günther Jauch, host of the wildly popular Wer wird Millionär show on privately-owned RTL, moved over to ARD, it made waves in the industry, inspiring a debate on the purpose and value of political talk shows. Media specialist Bernd Gäbler took a closer look at the trend that brought the format back to prime time and found that, contrary to earlier talk shows, the new programs no longer actually feature politicians. Instead, they invite celebrity guests without any real political background. The shows are also becoming more and more similar to each other, according to Gäbler. “There is no clear differentiation or profiling of the programs. It is all a reproduction of the same model,” wrote Gäbler, “which represents a move away from real politics and more toward entertainment.”

Just entertainment – according to critics

Of course, the critics have been around just as long as the shows themselves, and Gäbler is not the only one irritated by the hot air. One of the first shows to garner media criticism, and inspire a closer look at the “tabloidization of politics”, was Sabine Christiansen. In 2004, pundit Walter van Rossum wrote in a bitterly aggressive attack that the format is “not exactly going to nurture the overall political education of our society.” But science and politics are also critical of the shows. While Bundestag President Lammert sees a “political simulation” in the format, other political and communications specialists are generally critical of the increasing “politainment” aspect as well as of the creation of a media-based “substitute democracy” that has displaced real politics. As a result of the propagation of these shows, the following trends and points of critique can be highlighted:
  • Personalization (people become the focus, instead of the topics themselves)
  • An unacceptable mix of entertainment and politics (the “politainment” and tabloidization of real political subject matter)
  • Always the same guests (a small group of talking heads is defining the public image)
  • Subject matter is too limited (topics that should or could be discussed are too often ignored)
  • Ratings orientation (popular topics are chosen over more complex or important topics. The motto is: ratings over relevance)
  • Talk shows as a substitute parliament (some politicians are happier to show up on TV than in the parliament buildings)
  • Exaggerated self-importance among guests (telegenic celebrities and motormouths win the upper hand among other guests who are also trying to express their thoughts on a subject)
  • Boredom from excess (the same subjects and guests doesn’t lead to increased viewer interest in politics. On the contrary, people become less “politicized”.)
Interestingly, politicians tend to appear on talk shows during campaign periods instead of on more purely political programs. They and their consultants are obviously convinced that the more personable, comfortable and less combative format of the TV talk show will better serve political objectives.

Objection: what the producers think

Thomas Bauman, editor-in-chief at ARD and the man responsible for talk shows there, refuses to take the criticism at face value. In an interview with the magazine Journalist, he maintained that any limitations with regard to subject matter are often a natural progression: “Sometimes there are topics in the news that are so dominating it takes days of discussion to work through them.” There is also the critique that the TV stations are taking the topics from the other talk shows. “Incorrect,” says Baumann, adding that, “The editorial teams are professional enough with one another that they wouldn’t want to invite the same guests for the same topics.” ZDF host Maybritt Illner sees another aspect of it as well. “Politics are always staged,” she said to Kress media. There is no real difference between the talk shows and parliament.


Walter van Rossum:
Meine Sonntage mit "Sabine Christiansen". Wie das Palaver uns regiert. (lit. “My Sundays with Sabine Christiansen. How the babble rules us all.” Köln, 2004)

Bernd Gäbler:

Und unseren täglichen Talk gib uns heute. Eine Studie der Otto Brenner-Stiftung (lit. “Give us our daily talk show. A study by the Otto Brenner Foundation”. Frankfurt/Main, 2011)

Andreas Dörner:
Politainment (Frankfurt/Main, 2001)

Thomas Meyer:
Mediokratie (Frankfurt/Main, 2001)