Why you should care

Once the most popular show in Europe, Germany’s Wetten, dass..? will soon go off the air. How long before the same fate befalls America’s evening variety shows?

“In the United States if you are on a TV show that goes for four hours, everybody responsible for that show is fired the next day,” the actor Tom Hanks said of his 2012 trip aboard Germany’s long-running Saturday night cruise ship Wetten, dass..?.

In Germany, on the other hand, apparently it takes 33 years to end that ride.

This coming December one of the strangest shows on television, Wetten, dass..? (or Wanna Bet That…?) will come to an end. Executives at Germany’s public broadcasting network ZDF recently canceled the variety show that was once the biggest television hit in Europe.

Since February 1981, the cross between Saturday Night Live, Fear Factor and The Tonight Show, has featured ordinary people performing extraordinary feats while celebrity guests wager on whether they will succeed — and perform mildly humiliating acts if they lose that bet.

Through the years, perplexed celebrity guests from around the world (often depending on an earpiece to translate the proceedings), from Hanks to Angelina Jolie to Tom Cruise to Michael Jackson, have wagered and observed as 13 swimmers towed a 312-ton ship, a motorcyclist sped down a luge track, or a dairy farmer correctly identified his cows based on the sounds they made when chewing apples.

For every spectacular feat or briefly humiliated celebrity … there are hours of build-up and banter.

Meanwhile, Germans at home watched in periodic delight, but in massive numbers. Part of the early appeal was no doubt circumstantial. Until 1985, when private television finally arrived under Helmut Kohl, most West Germans had just three television channels. Not surprisingly, the hit show peaked at over 23 million viewers in the mid-’80s, a far cry from the under six million who tune in today to watch a broadcast that still can run 2–3 hours in length (and for much of its history — almost without fail — delayed the following news program).

And while watching a not-so-amused Tom Hanks wear cat ears in the midst of a potato-sack race may well be worth the price of admission, for every spectacular feat or briefly humiliated celebrity on Wetten, dass..? there are hours of build-up and banter. A wait that today’s TV audiences no longer wish, or need, to endure.

Tom Hanks wears cat ears while Markus Lanz hops around stage in a potato sack.

Tom Hanks and Markus Lanz attend the Wetten dass…? show in 2012.

Source Fanziska Krug/Getty

In 2014, betting that a broadly-segmented demographic will tune into a variety show with a little something for everyone, age 5 to 105, is a losing proposition, and not just on German television.

How much do you wanna bet that Wetten, dass..? is but a canary in the coal mine of modern television, and that similar aging American relics like Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show will wake up one day soon to discover that, as Hanks put it, everyone responsible for them has been fired?

As you ponder your wager, please join the Spice Girls in watching this classic Wetten, dass..? moment from 1997: An earth mover climbing a 15-meter tall tower in Vienna’s Rathausplatz.

German engineering — if not television — at its finest. (The excavator starts its ascent at the 3-minute mark).

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