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Political Satire Shows
“Satire and journalism can complement each other”

The Heute-Show with Oliver Welke
Photo (detail) ZDF © Willi Weber

Satire shows on German television are increasingly addressing political issues. It is still, however, difficult to compare them with their American role models, says media scientist, Benedict Porzelt.

Mr. Porzelt, some political satire programs in Germany attract more viewers than news magazines. Is comedy starting to outshine classic journalism?
Political satire shows are, of course, not journalistic formats, but serve as entertainment - even if they are based on what is going on in the news like the Heute-Show, a German comedy news show. One thing, however, that is really noticeable is the fact that many satire formats in the meantime are strongly focused on journalistic reporting. Essentially, it is all about commenting on what has been going on in a humorous way. I would, therefore, prefer to say that satire and journalism can complement each other in a productive way. It is a well known fact that formats like the Heute-Show are a hit with younger audiences who are more online-savvy. And there are actually studies in the United States that conclude that satire programs there serve as an important source of information. However, this observation cannot be easily transferred to Germany.

Satire in the USA and Germany

What are the differences?
Dr. Benedikt Porzelt Dr. Benedikt Porzelt | Photo (detail) © Andreas Irzinger First, the formats themselves are different. In Germany, we are dealing at the moment with such popular formats as the Heute-Show, Die Anstalt, Neo Magazin Royale and Extra 3, but these shows do not quite enjoy the same status as the American shows. Back in the mid-1990s in the USA comedians like Jon Stewart were already starting to combine comedy with hard facts. When the Heute-Show first went on the air in Germany, using the same concept, back in 2009, it was something completely new. For a long time there had been a strict separation between sophisticated political satire, as represented by the German Kabarett, and comedy, whose aim was ostensibly only to entertain. In the meantime they have been more or less successful at mixing these two stylistic vehicles. Nevertheless, they are still not on a par with what John Oliver does on his show, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
What is then so special about his show?
John Oliver, with his team of writers and researchers, manages to combine thoroughly researched facts with gags in such a way that the facts are not twisted – even if it means doing without the odd laugh. German shows try to do this as well, but with varying success. The Heute-Show, for example, again and again uses news items that have gag potential, but which, for good reasons, did not make it onto the traditional news shows. And sometimes very progressive shows like Neo Magazine Royale that is famous for its clever clips that are so successful online, often still cannot provide quality like this for a whole episode.

Meta-criticism of journalism

But isn’t the media environment in Germany, compared to the USA, really quite different.
Correct. In contrast to the United States, in Germany we can rely on the news reported by the public broadcasters, as they are not under the pressure of having to sell headlines. Due to the sometimes very populist reporting in the United States, satire there in the meantime has taken on the role of “oppositional news”. For more and more viewers in the USA this “counter-reporting” of news has actually become a viable alternative to the party-affiliated stations, like Fox, that sometimes crassly distort the facts.
At the beginning of this interview you spoke of a productive interaction between satire and journalism on German television. Could you explain this in a little more detail?

Political satire in the style of the Heute-Show is necessarily dependent on professional, investigative journalism. Without the work of the classic news-reporting formats, the satire shows simply would not work - as the producers of the satire shows have emphasized over and over again. At the same time, however, satire provides an opportunity to deal out meta-criticism of the media coverage. At a time in which traditional news formats are facing more and more criticism, this is extremely important for public discourse. Add to this the fact that the new media are particularly good at presenting satire and addressing a younger target group. Of course, traditional formats can also benefit from this. For example, satire shows can pick up on existing journalistic reports in an entertaining way and, by doing so, draw more attention to an issue.

Satire for election campaigns

In the USA the presidential election will be decided in November 2016, the German parliamentary election in 2017. What role do political satire shows play in this context?
In the USA, they are already playing quite a major role. Formats like the Daily Show or, up to 2014, the Colbert Report had already become an important source of information for previous presidential elections. High-ranking politicians, including Barack Obama, use appearances in the shows for election purposes. They can present themselves in an unconventional way and target young audiences, in particular.
Have German politicians now realised this in the meantime?
Yes, appearing, for example, on the Heute-Show, is also an interesting option for German politicians. In the 2013 election, many politicians were already chatting away on the satire talk shows. We carried out an intensive study of this phenomenon in a comprehensive research project. The special thing about these situations is that communication routines are disrupted. And it is politicians, of all people, who are often accused of always sticking closely to their communication routines, of not being authentic and of hiding behind empty phrases. A satire show gives them the chance to break away from that image and to present themselves as entertaining and as able to laugh at themselves. However, this can also backfire if they come across as awkward or inept.

Dr. Benedikt Porzelt has been working as a media researcher for several years on the ways politics can be staged in an entertaining way. In 2013, Benedict Porzelt completed his doctorate with an empirical study on humorous communication and its potential as a form of public criticism.