How much politics is entertainment

Political talk shows on television
Is it all just entertainment?

Talk shows: In the meantime, there seems to be an inflation of the format. | Photo (detail): dandanian © iStockphoto

They are called "Anne Will", "tough but fair", "People at Maischberger", "Beckmann" or "Illner": Political talk shows characterize the TV programs on ARD and ZDF in the late evening. Does the quality of the format suffer from the wide range on offer?

The political talk show has decades under its belt, once called itself Three past nine, times Press club, times Bonn round. Neither public broadcasters nor their private competitors wanted or want to do without them. Talk shows have many advantages for the broadcasters. They are a relatively inexpensive format, allow audience-effective personalization and branding around the moderator, offer options for audience involvement and, as live broadcasts, can record current political events in a multilayered and subtle way.

Inflationary format

But now there seems to be an inflation of the format. Not only on the ARD, which changed its program schedule in 2011, but also on the other stations, there is almost competition and debate and this is not always particularly rich, critics complain. The change of the well-known presenter Günther Jauch to ARD, who is the popular entertainment show on the private broadcaster RTL Who will be a millionaire moderated, caused a sensation and ushered in a debate about the meaning and value of political talks. The media scientist Bernd Gäbler has examined the trend towards popularization of the format in more detail. In contrast to earlier talks, the new formats no longer focus on politicians, but rather more or less prominent guests who have no political background. In addition, the formats are becoming more and more similar, according to Gäbler: “There is no sharper demarcation of the formats and clearer profiling, but rather a 'multiplication of the similar'”, writes Gäbler, who has seen a renewed push away from politics and towards entertainment.

Just entertainment: the critics' point of view

The criticism of them is just as old as the political talks. The big palaver is not only annoying for Gäbler. One of the first talk shows that gave the media criticism an impetus to deal more closely with the trend of the "tabloidization of political business" was Sabine Christiansen. As early as 2004, the media critic Walter van Rossum described in a bitter polemic that he did not see the format as promoting the general political education of the public. But science and politics themselves are also taking the talks hard into judgment. While Bundestag President Lammert sees them as a “political simulation”, political and communication scientists express a general criticism of the increasing “politainment” or the emergence of a substitute media democracy that “colonized” real politics. The main points of criticism can be summarized as follows - the flood of political talks would strengthen certain tendencies:
  • Personalization (only personnel is discussed, not content),
  • inadmissible mix of entertainment and politics (politainment and tabloidization of political content),
  • always the same guests (a small group of TV debaters shapes the public image),
  • one-sided thematic orientation (important topics that could also have been discussed are no longer discussed),
  • Fixing of quotas (popular topics are preferred to difficult but important topics, the motto is: "interesting over relevant"),
  • Talk shows as a substitute parliament (some politicians were more likely to appear on television than in the Bundestag),
  • excessive self-expression of the guests (telegenic people and long-time speakers would gain the upper hand over guests who want to comment on the matter),
  • Boredom due to oversupply (the same topics and guests ultimately did not lead to more interest in politics on the part of the public, rather the opposite is the case - this increases the trend towards depoliticization).
In this context, it is interesting that politicians tend to attend TV talks rather than puristic political programs, especially during election campaigns. She and her advisors are evidently of the conviction that the humane, warmer and less conflict-prone talk formats are more conducive to their political goals.

Counter-speech: The view of the makers

Thomas Bauman, ARD editor-in-chief and responsible for the talks, does not want to leave the criticism standing. In an interview with the specialist magazine journalist he explained his position. The fact that it comes to thematically one-sided concentrations is simply due to the nature of things: "Now and then there are news situations that are so dominant that you have to focus on a topic for days." In addition, the criticism is the TV -Makers would take issues away from each other, incorrectly. "The editors are themselves professional enough among themselves that they have no interest in inviting the same guests to the same topics." ZDF talker Maybritt Illner sees another aspect: "Politics is basically always staging," she told the media service Kress. So this is no different on television or on talk shows than in parliament.


Walter van Rossum:
My Sundays with “Sabine Christiansen”. How the palaver rules us. (Cologne, 2004)

Bernd Gäbler:
And give us our daily talk today. A study by the Otto Brenner Foundation (Frankfurt / Main, 2011)

Andreas Dörner:
Politainment (Frankfurt / Main, 2001)

Thomas Meyer:
Mediocracy (Frankfurt / Main, 2001)