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Culture

Girl Power Rules in German Media

As comedian Anke Engelke launches her first late-night talk show, she joins the swelling ranks of German television's fast-talking, high-earning women.

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Anke Engelke is all the talk as her late-night chat show makes its debut

When Germany's first lady of comedy, Anke Engelke, premiered her new late-night talk show on Monday, the nation's eyes were on her. Some three million people tuned in to see the successful stand-up comedian crack jokes and chat with international celebrities.

Attracting the attention of 27 percent of the key viewers between the ages of 14 and 49, Anke's Late Night started as the most successful talk show in the late night spot.

In the coming weeks, there will be a lot of resting on the slight shoulders of the 38-year-old host. As the successor to Harald Schmidt, Germany's beloved king of comedy, the debut of her new show is a media milestone. Every episode of Anke Late Night is set to cost private broadcaster Sat 1 €90,000, while the star herself will be taking home a tidy €20,000 per night.

With this much at stake, the knives are inevitably out. Critics and viewers alike won't be generous when it comes to assessing her performance. As far as her employers are concerned, Engelke's main purpose is to boost ratings and bring in advertisers. Sat 1 is expecting a slow start, with a 30-second commercial in the show's ad breaks costing €9,500, slightly less than they did during the glory days of Schmidt's reign, when some 1.8 million viewers watched The Harald Schmidt Show every night, four times a week.

Passing the Schmidt mantle

Viewers, meanwhile, are eager to see if she can do justice to the format her predecessor single-handedly made cool to the German TV public, brought up on a diet of cheesy chat shows fronted by non-threatening, mainstream hosts along the lines of Rudi Carrell and Thomas Gottschalk. Jay Leno they weren't -- and it wasn't until Schmidt came along in 1995 that viewers began tuning in regularly for a late-night dose of topical humor and smooth gags.

When Schmidt quit last December, it unleashed a media frenzy, and all sorts of celebrities were mooted as likely candidates for the vacated position. Amid the flurry of publicity triggered when Anke Engelke was announced as his successor, the one thing nobody mentioned was the fact she was a woman.

Anke Engelke

The female touch

And these days, that's definitely not a dirty word in German TV. Right now, it seems like Germany can't get enough of shows fronted by women, whether they're stand-up comedians or hard-hitting political commentators.

Verleihung des Deutschen Fernsehpreises 2002

Maybrit Illner und Sabine Christiansen (r) were awarded the German Television Prize in 2002 for hosting the debate between Chancellor Schröder and Edmund Schröder during the last elections.

Respected journalists such as Sabine Christiansen, Sandra Maischberger, Maybrit Illner, Elke Heidenreich, Anne Will and Marietta Slomka have become household names in recent years, chairing the country's most popular talk shows and anchoring its daily newscasts.

Dr. Lutz Erbring from Berlin's Free University downplays the trend. "The best person gets the job," he says. "These categories have become redundant, and it's no longer relevant to talk in terms of gender roles." He stresses that the talk show is primarily personality driven, arguing that the current predominance of women is arbitrary, and the balance may well tip again in years to come.

A role reversal

Erbring describes the German media as pretty much "unisex" for the last decade, and says that in this respect, it reflects the rest of Europe. He also points out a recent role reversal, with men tending to host the lightweight shows -- such as Stefan Raab and the hugely popular TV Total -- while women have taken the helm of the meatier interview format.

Sabine Christiansen's homepage describes the formidable Sunday evening talk show presenter as "the most powerful woman in German television."

Whether it's a long-term trend or simply a happy coincidence, most of Germany's must-see shows are currently carved up among a female elite. Between Christiansen's grilling of Condoleezza Rice on Sunday evening and Engelke's chatting to Sting one day later, their male colleagues are barely getting a word in.

Unthinkable ten years ago, the prospect of a woman behind the traditional late-night show desk was the least interesting aspect of Engelke's appointment. It may be a new departure, but Sat 1 head Roger Schawinski is confident he knows what's he's doing. He has said he hopes Anke Late Night will appeal to a different, more broad-based audience -- younger, less intellectual, more "female."

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