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Casting for Trouble

DW staff (dc)February 4, 2008

After the nervous breakdown of a 17-year-old, two German bodies concerned with the protection of young people have criticized broadcaster RTL for the way contestants are treated on the German version of Pop Idol.

Mark Medlock, 2007 winner of German casting show "Deutschland Sucht den Superstar"
Millions of German kids watched Mark Medlock win the last "DSDS" seriesImage: AP

The German Cultural Council (Kulturrat) accused RTL of displaying a "malicious disregard" for humanity on the talent show, commonly referred to as "DSDS." Council member Christian Höppner added that the broadcaster is perpetrating "a level of media brutality and socio-political irresponsibility" that, as a member of RTL's program advisory board, he can no longer accept.

In addition, Germany's state-sponsored commission for the protection of young people in the media (KJM) has opened a review procedure against the show. The head of the KJM, Wolf-Dieter Ring, said that the manner in which contestants are humiliated on the show could have detrimental effects on young viewers.

Pop Idol, German style

Germany's version of Britain's "Pop Idol" or "American Idol" in the US, DSDS follows a tried-and-tested format. Casting calls are held in major German cities, and then the camera follows, documentary-style, as hordes of wanna-be pop stars are whittled down by a caustic jury to a select few finalists competing for a recording contract.

The early episodes of DSDS typically focus on those unfortunate candidates who clearly do not have the stuff to become a pop star, nor the self-respect to prevent them from parading their lack of talent before RTL's cameras and acid-tongued head juror, Dieter Bohlen of the 1980s pop duo "Modern Talking."

DSDS jury member Dieter Bohlen
Dieter Bohlen has become famous for his put-downs on "DSDS"Image: AP

The latest incident to draw collective criticism involves a 17-year old boy whose nerves were so shattered by his audition -- and Bohlen's scathing comments -- that he hyperventilated and collapsed. Since his appearance on DSDS, the boy, whose full name and home town were made public on the show, has received hundreds of hateful phone calls. For his own security, his school has granted him leave.

During a recap of the incident on a subsequent DSDS episode, Bohlen blamed the boy's father for failing to tell his son honestly that he has no singing talent.

"I find that deceitful and sanctimonious, after RTL handpicks the candidates," KJM Chairman Ring said.

Spreading like a cancer

Child watches television with his mother
Television should not "disturb" children as they develop into socially-adept beings, the KJM saysImage: Bilderbox

Ring added that it should be the goal of television not to disturb children during their development into socially-adept human beings. The DSDS jury, comprised of Bohlen, Anja Lukaseder and Andreas Läsker, he said, portrays their "brutal selection" criteria as socially acceptable -- something Ring said he finds "problematic."

The Cultural Council's Höppner went even further, saying that "delight in humiliation and unbridled voyeurism is spreading throughout different media platforms like a cancer" and cannot fail to have social consequences.

Höppner added that RTL doesn't appear to want to address the problem, which is why he is calling on government and organizations to use their influence to stop this development.

RTL: "No need to protect candidates"

RTL spokeswoman Anke Eickmeyer denied that DSDS deliberately seeks to humiliate untalented candidates. She told newsmagazine Der Spiegel that the people chosen to sing in front of the jury should be representative of the total number of candidates who come to the casting calls.

"Among these are the talented singers, as well as the less talented singers," Eickmeyer said.

"All the contestants come to the casting of their own free will, with either a realistic or an unrealistic self-assessment of their talent," she added. "There is no general need to protect candidates."

After talks with the KJM a year ago, RTL gave the impression that it would tread more carefully in future series of "Deutschland Sucht den Superstar," or "Germany Searches for a Superstar." But if anything, as it kicks off its fifth season, the show appears to be less interested in spotting talent, and more interested in revelling in the cluelessness of some of its contestants, and the equally atrocious abuse spouted at them by Bohlen & Co.

RTL will have a chance to defend itself in front of a jury of KJM officials, but if the protectors of Germany's youth decide that the station has indeed committed a transgression, a fine could be levied.