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Culture

Who's the Joke on this Time?

What do a four-time Olympic gold medallist and a TV comedian have in common? Nothing, unless you count a last-ditch publicity stunt on ice.

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Stefan Raab should save his laughs -- they could run out sooner than he expects

Two months ago Claudia Pechstein was speed skating her way to gold at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. This week she’s out on the ice again, but this time for laughs.

After returning from Utah, Pechstein joined the ranks of other successful German athletes and toured the TV talk shows. She made appearances at all the important and serious programs and then for kicks decided to pop into the studio of "TV-Total". There she met with Germany’s late-night comedian Stefan Raab, whose inane ukulele songs and silly video clips have brought down many an illustrious star while basking in the applause of a pubescent audience.

Pechstein, like the many "TV-Total" guests before her, came to the show expecting to up her star-status, but found herself being made the butt of Raab’s bitingly personal jokes (female speed skaters have exceptionally well-developed lower bodies...). Instead of simply shrugging it off with a girlish giggle like Britney Spears last week, Pechstein challenged the TV funny boy to a showdown on ice.

On February 27, only a few days after becoming Germany’s most successful winter Olympian ever, Pechstein dared Raab to go head to head with her in a 3,000 meter race. Raab, who last year proved his courage to lose in a boxing match against the world champion Regina Halmich, responded immediately to the challenge. "Are you serious", he said, "I’ll go up against you any day!"

On Thursday, April 4, the two will face off in Berlin’s ice stadium. Even with the 1,000 meter head start Pechstein generously gave to Raab, the winner of the race is clear. The question remains who will reap the most publicity from the event.

Popularity race

Pechstein’s clearly got the more favorable starting position. She’s the reigning world champion in her sport. With seven Olympic medals, including four gold, not even Raab’s most embarrassing stunts can tarnish her image.

Raab, on the other hand, is under a lot of pressure to perform. No one seriously expects him to beat Pechstein – in fact, that’s not even what the race is really about. Popularity and ratings are the real name of the game. And in that arena Raab is skating on thin ice.

"TV-Total" ratings have dwindled over the last few months from a record 20 percent of TV viewers to less than 15 percent. Despite a top-ten position in the German music charts for the song "Wir kiffen" (Raab’s answer to the hit "Cause I Got High") and widely publicized stunts such as Raab’s bid for the Moldavian Olympic ski team, the comedian has been unable to stop the slide in personality.

The strongest proof of this came last week when the private channel ProSieben, which hosts the nightly show, announced that it was forced to cut the price of commercial air time to attract more sponsors. A spokesperson for TV-Total, however, denied the pessimistic outlook, saying "there are always ups and downs" in show biz.

Raab vs.Halmich

German TV-presenter Stefan Raab, right, and the German fly-weight world champion of the WIBF women boxing Regina Halmich pose for photographers after their boxing-match in a TV-studio in Cologne March 22, 2001. Regina Halmich won the match after five rounds on points.

Big guys fall hard

Stefan Raab’s marketing team doesn’t want to hear anything about defeat. All energies are going into making Thursday night’s show-down on ice a spectacular media event. Several popular comedians, the boxer Axel Schulz and the German punk rock band "Toten hosen" will on be on hand to cheer Raab to victory.

While the ice-dual might help revive Raab’s sliding ratings, it’s not much more than a quick fix, a sprint of sorts until the next publicity stunt comes around. Two years ago at the high point of his TV popularity, Raab said he would quit the show at the end of 2003. At that time he would get out of television altogether and either sail around the world or open up a fast food stand. He never predicted the laughs might run out sooner.

Stefan Raab is not the only one gearing up for a show down. ProSieben’s owner Leo Kirch is facing his own battle for survival. For Germany’s media mogul, however, the stakes are higher than any one TV show. If Kirch loses his struggle to save his television empire, thousands of people will be out of a job, including Raab. And no amount of well-publicized marketing and humorous stunts can prevent that.

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