Europe's Smash Action Show

 RTL/Guido Engels

Some call it car porn. In every episode of Alarm for Cobra 11, Europe's biggest and most successful action series, the finest and fastest Benzes, Bentleys and Beemers are crashed, smashed, twisted, torn and blown sky high. And the audience, which surprisingly includes as many women as men, loves it.

Fifteen years after its debut, Cobra 11 kicked off its 17th season with a 22 percent share as 5 million Germans tuned in to watch their favorite cops crack wise while patrolling the Autobahn at 120 mph. Worldwide, the series has sold to 120 countries, making it arguably the most successful fiction show made outside the U.S.

"I always knew, in my gut, that it would work," says Hermann Joha, CEO of Action Concept, the production house behind Cobra. Joha's big idea was to make a German version of all those American action series he loved from the '80s -- such shows as The A-Team, The Fall Guy and Magnum, P.I.

For his characters, Joha was inspired by another '80s genre: the mismatched buddy cop film. In place of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, Cobra 11 has Erdogan Atalay, the Turkish-German family man, and Tom Beck, the womanizer and loose cannon. Both are cops working  the Autobahn.

The show might borrow from American TV, but don't expect a U.S. version anytime soon. In addition to its uniquely German premise, Action Concept -- which owns the rights -- has blocked attempts to remake it.

"The show took an American concept, the buddy action comedy, and put it in a German context. No one had done that before," says Stefan Retzbach, the showrunner on the past 140 episodes of Cobra. "It was bigger and more expensive than anything being made in Europe."

Budgeted at $1.3 million an episode, Cobra was a hit from the start, with audiences near 10 million and a 30 percent-plus share. Easily the most successful show on commercial channel RTL, it sped past the American competition and held that pole position for nearly a decade.

Then came CSI.

"I remember it exactly: It was 2005, and CSI launched in Germany," recalls Joha. "Then came the others -- House, Monk, CSI: Miami. It was never the case before that a U.S. show would beat a German one. But this was a new generation. Jerry Bruckheimer had brought the cinema look to television, and one by one, the big German shows disappeared."

Cobra saw its viewership share shrivel. It was still the most expensive show on RTL, but at times the ratings dropped below the network's average. The show was in crisis.

So Joha, Retzbach and their team studied CSI and the new wave of U.S. shows. They sped up their editing and polished their visuals to give Cobra the "cinema" look. Most importantly, they turned their attention to storytelling, realizing stunts and explosions were no longer enough.

"It used to be they'd think up the stunts and see how to fit a story to them," says Atalay, the co-star of Cobra since the second episode. "Now it's the other way around; the story comes first. After 15 years on the air, I think we're finally grown up."

There were a few missteps, like the brief attempt to introduce darker, more troubling storylines, which bombed with German viewers. But in the end, Cobra's ratings crept back within fighting distance of House and CSI.

Now, that wave of U.S. series is reaching the end of their runs while Cobra 11, 15 years on and with more than 220 episodes in the can, is still going strong.

15 YEARS OF DESTRUCTION

  • Cars Trashed: More than 4,000
  • Tires Shredded per Episode: 400
  • Priciest Automotive "Guest Star": The Fulda Exelero, a bespoke version of Daimler's Maybach 57 model; price tag: $12 million
  • Number of Countries Where Cobra 11 has Aired: 140
  • Ratings for the 17th-Season Premiere: 5 million viewers, a 22% share
  • Cost for 30-Second Spot on Cobra 11: $95,000
  • Taurus World Stunt Awards (the stunt world's Oscars): 6
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