“It’s sad about cars. The Germans like cars.” Getting a feel for the audience isn’t as difficult as it’s always made out to be. Especially not when you’re Helmut Thoma, a genius in German television history. And an Austrian who knows how not to make a big deal out of his nose for success, not even when he buys cheap “Knight Rider” from the USA.
It works with the car in Germany. But the series has other strengths. It follows the successful crime series of the 1970s such as “Operation in Manhattan”, “The Streets of San Francisco” or “Starsky and Hutch”. There is also an element typical of the early 1980s: curiosity about the subject of artificial intelligence. The star of the series is – Thoma knows – the car.
“KITT” can think, talk, accelerate like no other car and jump over obstacles. In addition, he is bulletproof, and even lighter explosive charges do not bother him. But first rule of science fiction: The hero must have a kryptonite. Weaknesses that undermine him. Otherwise, it quickly becomes a bit boring. Kitt doesn’t have many. One of them is that he must take a running start to jump over obstacles. It gives the program, produced for commercial television, a fixed-time dramaturgy: after 24 minutes, before the first commercial block, an attempt to jump fails. Most of the time, for cost reasons, the production company cuts the same freight train into the sequence that gets in Kitt’s way. After 40 minutes a jump succeeds. Five minutes later, the criminal arrives where he belongs: in prison.
ZDF is looking for alternatives for heating – tealights are not
Again, Knight Rider is a typical 80s kid. In cinema, this is a transitional phase. After Vietnam, the Vietnam Papers and Watergate, there was a great distrust of the government in the United States in the 1970s. It affected cinema. Even in blockbuster productions such as “Jaws” or “The Downfall of Poseidon”, corrupt or amateurish authorities appear as a regular element. These skeptical films give way to eighties like Rambo in the 80s: They stand for the optimistic America of the Reagan era, where the good strong man simply makes his way over enemies and doubts.
Knight Rider stands on the border between both eras. Michael Long, later Knight, is a disgruntled police officer who was shot on duty and is frustrated by the corruption of his superiors. He put himself in the service of the “Knight Foundation for Law and Constitution”. Since the series starts in 1982, this foundation still takes the law into its own hands. But the longer “Knight Rider” is filmed, the more Michael Knight works with his former colleagues.
The Knight Rider is David Hasselhoff. A previously unknown actor who looks extremely good, but whose mime talent is manageable. Which doesn’t have such a bad effect, the car is the star of the series after all. The knight’s faithful horse. Just as Michael appears mostly dressed in black leather, Kitt is also wrapped in black sheet metal. Only broken by red lights, especially the distinctive horizontal red lamp on the bonnet. This fight performance is thwarted in the German dubbing by Kitt’s spokesman Gottfried Kramer. It gives the armored horse something snobbish. A tone that would later be typical of the Cheers offshoot “Frasier”.
The series continues to play with the alternation between the humorous and the martial. The trailer is clearly the latter: firstly, a bass line creates the right atmosphere – in the American original it is more prominent than in the German version. Then a synth sound typical of the 80s kicks in. And Manuel Naranjo formulates with a wonderfully deep voice: “A man and his car fight against injustice.” In the American opening credits, the text emphasizes more strongly that Michael Knight is actually outside the law himself. In 1982, the distrust of the authorities is even stronger than in 1985, when the series was first shown in Germany.
At first, she has few viewers. That doesn’t mean Knight Rider is a flop, though. This is simply because “RTL plus” has almost no range. Cable TV is still expensive and few families treat themselves to the connection. It wasn’t until the second and third airing that the action picked up like Kitt did. A merchandising market is created with radio play episodes and plug-in miniature sets. Hasselhoff becomes a world star in Germany, where the audience even buys Jack White’s “Looking for Freedom”, which actually brings down the Wall – but that’s another story.
Part of the story of “Knight Rider” is that the series represents a milestone in the history of “RTL plus”, today’s RTL. The private television company started in 1984. The L stands for Luxembourg, the former seat of today’s Cologne. The beginning is chaotic. Especially the first year. The broadcaster hardly owns any rights, film mogul Leo Kirch is behind the project, which has become today’s Sat1. The moderators often announce films at 4 p.m. that they have to cancel at 6 p.m. The Luxembourgers improvise.
The first moderators come from radio. In the beginning, RTL actually made television like radio: a moderator guides you through the day, chats away, entertains the audience. Instead of music, there are film credits or commercials in between. Almost no one sees it. On the one hand, because of the lack of range. If the viewers call in to the live program – also a radio element – then they come from Saarland, where RTL can be received via antenna. Or from the greater Hanover area, where there was a cable pilot project and more people got the offer than in the rest of Germany. At the time, the CDU ruled in Lower Saxony. While the SPD and the Greens are fighting against cable TV, it is being pushed by Helmut Kohl’s government.
The test image, which can be viewed until 4 p.m., gets the best marks at the start. RTL is the basis of the radio program for him. This is considered to be more original than the stuffy ARD offers. The Beatles, for example, are already lining up in Luxembourg when the ARD officials, like SED chief Walter Ulbricht, still oppose “Yeah Yeah Yeah”. Thanks to cable TV, the people of Lower Saxony can finally listen to RTL radio in VHF quality – and make relatively good use of it.
RTL only gets a fixed broadcasting schedule later. From then on, messages always arrive at the same time. Certain slots are reserved for action series, others for shows or movies. RTL is becoming more professional. Cable is getting cheaper and more and more families are getting connected to the network. In this phase, Thoma discovers “Knight Rider”. After the test picture, the series became the station’s first big success. Of course, a car. The Germans like that.