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Culture

Germany's Market Busting TV Star Raab Goes Global

Imported shows have long been a staple of German TV, but the reverse is rarely true. Now a game show created by an unlikely, if ubiquitous, German TV personality is taking foreign markets by storm.

Raab won the high jump in the eight show of Beat Raab.

Raab's desire to win makes him an ideal competitor -- and entertainment mogul

Can an irreverent former butcher named Stefan Raab save German entertainment?

So far, 12 countries have bought the adaptation rights to a German game show called "Schlag den Raab ," or "Beat Raab." The latest to sign on were Croatia and Denmark. A UK version is currently in production and will air this spring. The foreign title is "Beat Your Host;" the UK version is called "Beat the Star."

TV Show Schlag den Raab

Try beating Raab at this

As the original title implies, the German version involves pitting a selected contestant against 42-year-old Stefan Raab, a talk-show host and sort-of comedian who is arguably Germany’s most ubiquitous television personality. The contestant tries to beat Raab in a marathon four- to five-hour competition that encompasses up to 15 varied disciplines, from the physical (box stacking, ice climbing,) to the mental (poker playing, knowledge quiz) to the silly (dropping peas into a bottle.) At stake: a heap of cash.

The UK version, produced by a company called ITV, will pit contestants against a changing array of stars, and the contest has been shortened to last just over an hour. The German show was the most successful new start last year, pulling viewer ratings of around 31 percent of those aged 14 to 49.

Whether the same ratings dream will come true for ITV, as it has for Raab's German production firm Brainpool, remains to be seen. Nonetheless, Raab has managed to achieve something with this show that has been done only a handful of times in German TV history: crossing over to a broad international audience.

The rapid ascent of Stefan Raab

"Most successful German TV shows are strongly based on regional identities," said Joan Bleicher, Professor for Media Studies at the University of Hamburg. "It just wouldn't translate to an international audience."

But the success of Raab's latest endeavor is unlikely to surprise anyone who has kept an eye on the German entertainment scene for the past decade.

TV Show Schlag den Raab

Beat the Raab is one of Germany's most successful TV shows

Raab's rise on German television can only be described as meteoric. As a VJ on an German music-video channel Viva in 1996, he set himself apart with his ironic, often rude humor. His irreverence quickly won him the admiration of Germany’s youth.

In 1999 he became host of a show he created, "TV Total," which still runs four nights a week. It focuses on ridiculing television while pairing Raab as a chat host with entertainers and musicians -- often on the A-list -- who perform live on his show.

Derisive humor a hit among youth

But unlike most chat-show hosts, whose job descriptions fairly demand neutrality, Raab isn't urbane or fawning. Bulky and goateed, he looks a little bit like the butcher that he trained to be in his youth. He is neither handsome nor well dressed, and is mostly found wearing jeans, untucked shirts, sneakers and a self-satisfied grin.

Raab also doesn't shy from unleashing his derisive humor on the stars who take a seat on his couch, "which makes the youth market love him," says University of Hamburg's Bleicher.

Indeed, his brash and boorish style tends to divide the audience into "love him" and "hate him" camps, with the deciding factor apparently being age. The fault line falls somewhere around age 30.

Schlag den Raab

Love him or hate him, there's no escaping him

"Raab is very popular with people from 12 to 29," Bleicher said. "It's what the program planners are aiming for."

Meanwhile, "older people can't stand him," Bleicher asserts. "They think he is too aggressive, too ironic, unattractive. … He is simply rude."

Of insults and lawsuits

Certainly Raab has gotten into some well publicized hot water by ignoring the usual conventions of politesse. He once famously ridiculed a 16-year-old model named Lisa Loch (in German " loch" means "hole") saying her name could make her a porno star; a court made him pay the teenager 70,000 euros ($108,000) in damages.

In a similar 2004 misstep, he showed a picture of a young Turkish mother holding her child’s schoolbag, and quipped, "The drug traffickers are getting better and better at disguising themselves." That joke cost him 20,000 euros.

The legal troubles seem to have had their effect, and in recent years Raab hasn't landed in court. Or perhaps he has just been too busy building a major entertainment empire to think up anything actionable.

Schlag den Raab Geldkoffer

The winner takes it all...

In addition to "TV Total" -- which regularly sees Raab paired and poking fun at celebrities on the caliber of Elton John, Jackie Chan, Eminem, Kylie Minogue, Ben Stiller, and Will Smith -- Raab's broadcaster, the private channel Pro7, has given him free rein to create a series of entertainment "events."

Quick ride in a slippery wok

These usually land in prime-time slots, and run the gamut from the wacky (an annual sports event called the "Wok World Championship," in which celebrities take a bobsled run while seated in an enormous cooking wok,) to the iconoclastic (a takeoff on Germany’s version of the "American Idol" show with the tongue-in-cheek name "SSDSDSS," or "Stefan Seeks the Superstar Who Can Sing What He or She Wants"); the unlikely (the "Bundesvision Song Contest," pitting unknown bands from Germany's 16 federal states,) to the over-the-top (a project in the works called "autoball," which involves an arena, two cars and a giant soccer ball.)

Moreover, Raab is respected for his musical talent; he is a self-taught musician with his own record label, which he uses to produce and promote the talent that he discovers in his contests and features on his talk show. He was also deeply involved in the Eurovision song contest, where he has been both a contestant and a promoter, and has written and cut a few hit novelty songs.

A closed culture system?

If Raab sounds like a one man entertainment band, or an apolitical Silvio Berlusconi, it's because he is. And like him or hate him, most people admire his ability to take the pulse of German pop culture and turn it into a sackful of euros, if nothing else.

It leads to a not infrequent use of the word "genius."

In an awed 2007 article on Raab in respected German newspaper Die Zeit, Pro7 executive Jobst Benthues said that what Raab does is "big entertaiment. He is a genius of thinking of things first, and we give him the freedom to try things out. His successes validate our trust."

Media historian Bleicher agrees.

"He is a genius at selling himself and his ideas, and combining several aspects of the media economy," Bleicher says. "He combines diverse formats, like a big media conglomerate. But he is just one person."

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