Accidents are a fact of a life lived well

The cheap, politician-led exploitation of an accident on a German TV show is a threat to our freedom to take risks.

Johannes Richardt

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A tragic accident has brought the popular German-Austrian-Swiss TV show Wetten, dass..? (Wanna bet..?) to an abrupt end.

For 29 years, Wetten, dass..? has been the big Saturday evening show for the German-speaking part of Europe. Some of the biggest public figures in the world – from former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to Michael Jackson – have appeared on the show, chatting with the presenters Thomas Gottschalk and Michelle Hunziker – the ex-wife of Italian sentimental rocker Eros Ramazzotti.

Wetten, dass..? combines interviews and performances by international pop stars (Justin Bieber and Take That were scheduled to take part before the show got cancelled) with low- to high-risk tasks (so-called ‘bets’) undertaken by audience volunteers. These range from people who claim they can recognise the colour of crayons by tasting them to people attempting to beat world records in motorbike-aided ski jumps.

But the weekend before last, one daring feat ended in tragedy. Twenty-three-year-old drama student Samuel Koch attempted to somersault over five moving cars — including one driven by his father – using spring-loaded stilts. It went horribly wrong and Koch suffered severe spinal injuries. Though no longer in a critical condition, he will be paralysed for life. Straight after the accident, the show was pulled off air, before broadcaster ZDF vowed to raise the safety standards for future shows.

It didn’t take long for politicians to make statements about the incident and to call for stricter regulation of television on the back of it. The Social Democrat’s (SPD) media spokesman Martin Dörmann said that ‘certain risky bets should not take place in the future’. Liberal Party (FDP) MP Burkhardt Müller-Sönksen called for ‘a code of honour’, which would end risky stunts.

There is a general sense of agreement amongst commentators that the real cause of the accident was the increasingly fierce ratings battles between public and private broadcasters. Indeed, before the accident Wetten, dass..? big rival Das Supertalent (the German version of Britain’s Got Talent) was achieving higher ratings. This was the first time ever that Wetten, dass..? had done worse than a show from a private broadcaster.

Green Party media policy expert, Tabea Rößner, appealed for broadcasters ‘not to lose balance in the fight for better ratings’. This prompted ZDF board member and SPD minister-president of the federal state of Rhineland-Palatinate, Kurt Beck, to call for a debate on the issue. He said we must discuss thing like ‘when do we exceed the limits of our responsibilities? How much risk should one take?’

Although the battle over ratings influences the programme policy of public broadcasters it is untrue to say this has made them reckless. As the managing director of the Association of German Stuntmen René Ley explained, ‘ZDF is very responsible when it comes to the risk of accidents’. In fact, the safety standards of Wetten, dass..? are very rigorous.

The truth is that a certain level of risk is essential to Wetten, dass ..?. Like a circus needs not just silly clowns but also daring high-wire artists, the success of Wetten, dass..? rests on the spectacular stunts that it stages alongside celebrity interviews and performances. And like the circus, the show usually works with a safety net. Hence, before last week’s show, it has had only one fairly serious accident in 29 years: a BMX bike-riding American broke his leg trying to leap over a house. In comparison to a show like Jackass, where in almost every episode a professional stuntman ends up in hospital, it’s actually not such a bad ratio.

So the politicians are doubly wrong. Neither are the programme-makers unnecessarily endangering participants’ lives, nor is the ratings race leading to excessive risk-taking. The truth is more mundane: Koch’s botched stunt was an accident. Moreover, the politicians’ interventions are not, as has been suggested, in the public interest. Accidents are not a political issue; they are an unfortunate fact of life and cannot be banished by ever-tightening safety measures or through morally-charged appeals to TV viewers to be more ‘responsible’.

We must assume that Koch knew exactly what he was doing. After all he was not only a student but a part-time acrobat and stuntman. In a questionnaire completed before the show he mentioned nine hobbies: gymnastics, snowboarding, skiing, diving, swimming, inline skating, horse riding, dancing and fencing. Asked why he wanted to appear on the show he explained that he was looking ‘for new obstacles and challenges’. His motivation? To do something ‘no one else in the world had done before’. So keen was Koch to forgo risks, he wanted to perform the stunt without a helmet, but he was not allowed.

The show’s presenter Thomas Gottschalk has said that if we want to eradicate all possible danger, then we ought also ‘to blow out the candles at children’s birthdays’. He’s right. The world is not actually as dangerous as the health-and-safety zealots would have us believe. Of course, if you take a risk there is always a chance of failure. But that does not mean we shouldn’t take risks at all. Rather, risk-taking often makes life worth living.

That’s why adults ought to be free to decide what risks they want to take. Koch was not a victim of an uncontrollable media ratings battle – he was not forced into his actions. He simply wanted to explore and expand his physical boundaries. He wanted to show that he had what it takes to do this crazy stunt and he wanted to entertain the audience with his courage. These are all worthy aims and Koch ought to be applauded for being brave enough to pursue them.

Johannes Richardt is head of PR and communications at Novo Argumente.

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