Live on the Set with Germany's Idol

The winning formula used for Germany Seeks the Superstar would be familiar to viewers from Kansas to Kazakhstan

For better or worse, the program known as American Idol in the U.S. resonates across cultures more than almost any program ever created. Clones of the talent show air in some 40 countries—a bonanza for FremantleMedia, a unit of German media company Bertelsmann, which licenses the format worldwide.

The appeal always escaped me. Still, I was curious when Bertelsmann offered me tickets to the live broadcast of the German edition, Deutschland Sucht den Superstar (Germany Seeks the Superstar). On Apr. 12 I hauled my wife and daughter to a sprawling studio complex outside Cologne where Bertelsmann stages DSDS, as it's known universally in Germany. Maybe the whole Idol phenomenon would make more sense if I saw it live, I figured.

Fremantle, (BusinessWeek, 1/31/08) which is also behind shows such as The Apprentice and Family Feud, is fanatical about duplicating every detail of the show regardless of country. So the scene that greeted us as we filed into the studio would look familiar to viewers from Kansas to Kazakhstan. There was the flashing blue-and-white lighting, the blue-and-white oval logo, and, of course, the desk from which the jurors issue their harsh verdicts.

A Show Within a Show

What TV viewers don't see is the show within a show that takes place off the air. A DJ at stage left spun platters of thumping techno music. As air time approached, crowd-warmer Rene Travnicek, a hyperkinetic 33-year-old, did his best to rev up the roughly 1,200 live viewers. After all, it looks bad if the camera pans across the faces of a bored audience.

In fact, my 12-year-old daughter was bored. A few weeks earlier she had been thrilled to get tickets. But in the meantime, it seems, DSDS went out of favor among her peer group. Memo to self: Never take a job that involves marketing to 12-year-olds.

"Are you ready for Deutschland Sucht den Superstar?" Travnicek called out. Then he gave us some tips on how to behave: Smile when you see the camera pointing your way. Applaud on cue ("With total spontaneity, of course," he quipped). Watch out for the spider cam, a remote-controlled camera that zips along cables above the audience at alarming speed. Don't chew gum, he said, inviting a woman to spit out her wad into his hand. "You can get it back after the show," he said.

Germany's Answer to Simon Cowell

Moments later the jury members took their places: Anja Lukaseder, a music business manager; Bär Läsker, manager of a popular German rock group known as the Fantastic Four; and Dieter Bohlen, a pop star-turned-music producer whose playboy lifestyle provides plenty of fodder for the German tabloid press. Bohlen, the true star of the show, is known for witty, ruthless putdowns of DSDS hopefuls.

Cue the overblown musical intro and the laser lights. We were on the air. "Tonight, seven young people are ready to give their all," intoned emcee Marco Schreyl. We applauded and waved the luminous wands that we had all been issued.

Germany has made monumental contributions to classical music and opera, but its role in international pop is decidedly more modest. That may explain why most of the DSDS contestants are German immigrants. Their roots are in Bosnia, Romania, Lebanon, even Ghana.

Scathing Critiques

They're refugees, outsiders, adventurers willing to risk humiliation for a shot at stardom—and thus provide the producers with plenty of dramatic backstories. Fady Maalouf fled war-torn Lebanon. Rania Zeriri, a Dutch beauty with Algerian roots, whose nickname is Pocahontas, was reunited with her long-lost father after he saw her on the show, the audience was told.

None of which inhibited Bohlen from telling Rania (the contestants are always known by their first names) that her singing was "as flat as Holland." Bohlen never tires of reminding the aspirants that show biz is a ruthless business, and even the sight of tearful parents in the audience doesn't seem to blunt his critiques.

"We're not looking for composers, we're looking for singers," Bohlen railed at Collins Owusu, from Ghana by way of Dusseldorf, after he unintentionally added some notes to his R&B number that didn't exactly belong. Collins' mother and father, memorably named Comfort and Johnnyfix, looked distraught.

Pumping Up Conflict for the Cameras

Every Idol show needs its troublemaker, and Germany's was Benni Herd, a 16-year-old pipsqueak who had gone AWOL the previous week after delivering a tirade against the jury, his co-contestants, and even guest performer Mariah Carey. Backstage cameras dutifully captured the outburst, which was replayed for viewers of the live broadcast. The producers allowed Benni back, but there were scattered boos from the audience when his name was mentioned.

That level of negativity exceeded even DSDS standards. During a commercial break, moderator Schreyl stepped to the front of the stage and addressed the studio audience in a grave voice. "I would really like it if you would be fair to Benni," Schreyl said. "He's only 16 years old." Unmoved, a pair of women near me screamed, "Benni go home!"

Despite a few people who take DSDS way too seriously, the show seemed less vicious and emotional live than it looks on TV. During commercial breaks, the contestants and judges bantered in a way that suggests a good deal of the conflict is, if not exactly staged, at least pumped up for the cameras.

Mostly One-Hit Wonders in Germany

What surprised me about DSDS the most was that some of the performances—backed by a first-class live band—were actually pretty good. Fady did a killer rendition of Elton John's Your Song. Linda Teodosiu, a 16-year-old with Romanian roots, impressed even Bohlen with her delivery of One Day in Your Life, a hit by American pop singer Anastacia. "That was rather perfect," Bohlen conceded. Fady and Linda both advanced easily to the next round, but TV viewers ejected Collins. (Benni survived, but got the thumbs-down the next week.)

The odds that the winner of DSDS will become a major money-maker are slim, though. Unlike in the U.S., where winners such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have become Grammy-winning stars, winners of DSDS tend to be one-hit wonders at best. The one thing that Bertelsmann can't duplicate around the world is what happens to the contestants after the show is over.

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