Crash puts ZDF in gov’t crosshairs

Stunt tragedy forces net to rethink 'Wanna Bet'

A stunt that went badly wrong in a “Jackass”-style segment of a German reality show has raised questions in the country about how far TV channels should go in pursuit of ratings.

Last week, a competitor on pubcaster ZDF’s popular gamer “Wetten, dass…?” (Wanna Bet…?”) was critically injured attempting to jump over a series of speeding cars on foot.

It was the first serious accident in the monthly show’s 29 years on air and prompted a national discussion on whether it would survive.

In “Wanna Bet,” contestants wager they can perform unlikely feats, and celebrity panelists predict whether they will succeed.

Samuel Koch, an aspiring actor and stuntman, bet he could somersault over five cars in four minutes in a specially designed studio. He jumped the first two cars, complete with flips in mid-air, aborted an attempt over the third before something went wrong as he leaped over the fourth, driven by his father.

ZDF showed him crashing head first onto the studio floor as the live audience gasped and then went silent. Koch was rushed to a hospital in Duesseldorf with back, neck, leg and arm injuries. Doctors said later in the week that he would probably be permanently paralyzed.

Critics accused the pubcaster, which has a special mandate to inform and educate the public, of allowing increasingly dangerous stunts in the face of a ratings challenge from commercial rival channel RTL.

There was a time when competitors largely left the Saturday evening slot to “Wanna Bet” because it was such a ratings behemoth. But auds have dropped by 4 million between 2002 and 2010.

About 8.13 million (a 25.6 share) tuned in for the live Dec. 4 broadcast in which the tragedy occurred, compared with 8.34 million (26.3 share) for RTL’s talent show, “Das Supertalent.”

“A line was definitely crossed, and there was too muchattention being paid to ratings for a public broadcaster, too much craving for sensation,” says Michael Fuchs, a parliamentary leader for the ruling Christian Democrat party.

It’s a view backed by Hans-Christian Stroebele, a Green party member of parliament in Berlin, and Wolfgang Boernsen, a media policy expert for the Christian Democrats, who says it’s time to “look at the question of human digity on all TV networks.”

Even Kurt Beck, head of ZDF’s board and governor of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate where the pubcaster is based, wonders where it will draw the line on what is responsible and what is not. “ZDF is going to have to deal with the question (of) whether the ratings battle led to everything else being subordinated because ‘Wanna Bet’ is its best rated show,” he says.

But media experts warn against a rush to judgement.

“You can’t blame TV,” says industry analyst Jo Groebel, head of the Deutsche Digital Institute in Berlin. “Our society wants more spectacular kicks all the time. Most of the bets in ‘Wanna Bet’ are hardly spectacular. They’re just odd, funny or bizarre. The accident wasn’t the result of a ratings battle. Life is full of risks and we’ll never have risk-free TV.”

Thomas Gottschalk, who’s hosted 144 of the show’s 192 episodes since its 1981 bow, dismisses claims that ratings pressure is to blame for the accident.

“We’ve always had risky stunts, from motorcycle feats to stunts on ski jumps. It’s part of the show,” Gottschalk says. “Naturally we’re going to have to look into whether that can continue.”

ZDF program director Thomas Bellut says the network won’t cancel “Wanna Bet?” but will make stunts safer.