Weaver's Week 2021-08-22

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This week, we look at the most ambitious experiment in advertiser-funded television ever.

Cooking With the Stars


Cooking With the Stars

South Shore for ITV, 13 July – 17 August

The producers want to make Strictly Come Dancing in the kitchen. They start with the title, a gentle pun on the programme known in every territory as Dancing with the Stars.

Eight celebrities are taken under the wing of celebrity chefs. The celebs get lessons in how to cook some dishes, and they're filmed while learning their new craft. The chefs get exposure on primetime television, something they've all had in the past.

Cooking With the Stars Johnny Vegas learns how to knead bread from Rosemary Shrager.

Soon enough, the celebs cook their dish in the studio. For this round, the celebs can practice ahead of time. And they can call on their professional chef to help – but just for two minutes in the cooking hour.

Only two or three of the celebrities cook in each round. The others sit in a bar area to the side of the studio, along with their chefs. Everyone's wearing mikes, and we occasionally hear comments from the tutoring chefs, or the celebrities.

Cooking With the Stars Rosemary is exasperated with Johnny's efforts.

Once the hour is up, all of the dishes are picked apart by the other celebrity chefs, and they pick their best dish. The worst will be in the end-of-show cook-off. Rinse and repeat, because there are lots of contestants and not enough rounds for them all to cook.

Cooking With the Stars A line-up of chefs, in judgement on celebrities.

For the end-of-show cook-off, our celebs will follow a recipe they've never seen before: ingredients and instructions. There's no help from their professional chefs, they're not even allowed in the same room. The chefs won't know who has cooked which dish, and whether they're helping or hurting their own celebrity. Loser goes home, remainder cook again next week. Repeat and repeat until the final winner emerges.

The show was funded by an advertiser, aspirational store Marks & Spencer. Recipes and ingredients are available in their stores, and each episode spotlights a different cuisine – and a different range of products available at M&S. They've gone all-in for this programme, with additional "content" on their internet "channels".

Cooking With the Stars A production funded by Marks & Spencer, and they're not going to let us forget it.

M&S wanted to encourage customers to cook at home, and to do their grocery shopping at their stores. The sponsorship is noted as "product placement" in the titles, and with precisely one name-check for a Marks & Spencer product each week. Members of the company's loyalty programme received messages after the show with recipes, gave their staff branded aprons, and franked their mail with the show's logo. (M&S customers are the sort who still send mail in the post.)

Cooking With the Stars The hosts, Emma Willis and Tom Allen.

This is a column about television game shows, and we're more concerned about the business of television. Cooking With the Stars is the modern way of making television, M&S have effectively bought six hours of primetime ITV (and six hours of Saturday mornings) to advertise their brand. From ITV's view, it keeps the schedules ticking over, it's six hours of primetime they don't need to think about, it's six hours handed to them on a plate. Ad-funded content at 9pm on Tuesday is something new, we think this is the first series in primetime since The Krypton Factor a decade back.

Cooking With the Stars Emma Willis (right) with a contestant.

For all of its desire to be Strictly in the kitchen, we found the format to fall between pedestrian and middle-of-the-road. There wasn't very much practical advice – home cooks don't want to be the new Gordon Fearnley-Olliesmith, we want tips we can use. How to braise lamb, or make a good pasta from home? Why is this a good pickled cucumber, what has the cook done to make it work so well? Bake Off delighted us because there were little hints and tips embedded in the show, pieces of wisdom from Mary Berry and the contestants. Strictly gives us tips to watch out for, and Cooking with the Stars told us the errors just after the contestants had made them.

Rather than high falutin' chefs, this column would have picked eight celebs and paired them with eight people who teach us how to cook. Could they not afford Nigella? Or tempt Delia out of retirement? Ah, that'll be why...

Cooking With the Stars Coloured plates help with anonymous voting, but don't make for good television.

If we can't have an advice kitchen, is it good telly? Cooking with the Stars is up against Celebrity Masterchef Goes Large on BBC1, and the opposition turn the drama up to gas mark 8. By comparison, Cooking with the Stars was on gas mark 2, a low simmer of minor jeopardy. The brightly-lit and glossy kitchen is accompanied by plinky-plonky music. Narration from Emma Willis of Big Brother and Tom Allen of Quizness add to the frothy feelings. The professional chefs give bland and banal clichés, as though they're judging The Eggs Factor.

The aim of Strictly Come Dancing is to show off what two people can do together. The aim of Bake Off is to show off what one person can do on their own. The aim of Cooking with the Stars is to promote the funders' products, and show that anyone can cook. Against that very limited horizon, Cooking with the Stars was a success.

Cooking With the Stars The self-contained set: seating on the right, cooking in the middle, judges on the left.

Was it brilliant television? We don't think it was. The trope of "cooking against a strict time limit" is unoriginal. The trope of "cooking from a recipe" is a direct rip-off from Bake Off. The reveal of who had left was always always misdirected – to get the reaction shot, they had to give away who had had the votes. On the upside, Tom and Emma were irreverent enough to entertain, and the celebrities knew that the stakes were low – this show was a bit of fun, at least until the final.

Was it good marketing from Marks & Spencer? That's one for the beancounters at head office. We do know that viewing figures have been around the slot average, and the slot average for 9pm Tuesday on ITV is atrocious, the poorest night of the week. M&S won't have reached a mass audience, but they might have done enough to reach their target audience.

Did we enjoy the show? Frankly, no we didn't: we look forward to getting the 9pm hour back. We'd rather have watched a programme in a foreign language.

Beat Me! The Five Knockouts

Talpa TV for SBS6, 10 July – 4 September

The big summer Saturday night entertainment on Dutch telly has been a singing show. Pairs of singers perform songs of their choice, and the studio audience votes for which one they prefer.

The "boxing ring" looks on the professional judges, and the public. We don't see the live house band.

The format is simple. A challenger enters the boxing ring, and we see a brief video package about their life. The contender talks to the host and sings their song. It can be anything – our sample episode contained "This is me" from The Greatest Showman, "It's all coming back to me now" in the style of Céline Dion, and an Everly Brothers tribute duo.

The champion of this particular bout then walks on, and we see a very brief clip from previous performances. They talk to the host, and sing their song of the week. A studio audience of 70 people name their preference, and three professional jurists divide 10 points between the contenders.

Mylene tries to sing like Céline Dion.

The twist comes in the judging. Our champion chooses a judge, and hears their opinion – and sees their marks. Only now, with some information, does the champion choose whether to take their accumulated prize money, or to risk it all by hearing the other opinions. Whoever scores the more from the combined jury and public vote is the winner.

Who will win? Let's see what the public said!

And then repeat for a total of five singing battles in the show, which runs to an hour plus commercials. All of the battles are independent events, there's no "winner of the week" finale, so effectively it's five mini-shows that all have the same structure. While the format encourages competition, it's all done in a sporting manner – "she was excellent", "de beste zanger gewonnen".

The show's had some stunt casting – viewer fave Senja Sargeant returned after controversially being knocked out of The Voice of Holland earlier in the year. The format builds over the weeks, with characters we can root for (or against) – and it's created some interesting personalities. Contestant Talita won five matches, would have won the sixth, but chose to retire with €25 000 in her pocket. The judges have all been well-known singers, with one episode featuring all of Og3ne.

Handshakes and good feeling between the contestants.

Prizes start relatively small – €1000 for the first win, then climbing to €2500, €5000, €10 000, with €25 000 for the fifth win, then the jackpot of €50 000. Of course, if you lose a battle, you don't get paid, so the prizes aren't so generous as they appear. Viewing figures have remained resolutely small, SBS6 is the equivalent of Channel 5, and the show's not made much headway in the public consciousness.

We can see the format could work here. Possibly as a summer filler series, possibly as an element in a bigger show – it would sit well as one part in our hypothetical Dermot O'Leary's Saturday Night Bran Tub. And it'll be interesting to compare this original format to Simon Cowell's forthcoming original format Walk the Line, which seems quite similar.

In other news

Sean Lock Sean Lock (left) convinces Jon Richardson (right) to take an empty box.

Sean Lock has died. The comedian had a dark and surreal observational humour, often delivered in a complete deadpan. His work in the game show sphere included The Big Fat Quiz of the Year, Argumental, and his regular gig on 8 Out of 10 Cats and its spinoff 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, and its spinoff series Carrot in a Box. Sean withdrew from many panel shows about ten years ago, fearing that he would be typecast. Cancer cut Sean's career short, and he died this week aged 58.

Maki Kaji has died. He was the founder and chief executive of the Nikoli puzzle company, and created the sudoku puzzle, something easy for children and others who did not want to think too hard. Maki Kaji died from cancer aged 69.

Austin Mitchell has died, aged 86. The television reporter – most notably on Yorkshire Television's Calendar alongside Richard Whiteley – turned his hand to politics and was returned by the people of Great Grimsby from 1977 until 2015. He continued to broadcast, being one-third of The Honourable Members on Masterteam (1) in 1985, alongside Robert Maclennan and Patrick Cormack. Austin worked with Julian Critchley and Patrick Hannan on Radio 4's politics panel show Out of Order from 1988 until 1997.

Jeopardy! needs a new host. And probably a new executive producer superstar on ice. Mike Richards – the executive producer who appointed himself as host – stepped down as host after further details of his skeezy past emerged.

We noted last week how he'd been sued during his time producing The Price is Right. This week, someone listened to The Randumb Show, a podcast Richards made in 2013-14. It wasn't an edifying experience. Slurs are cast like confetti, women are judged purely on their looks, and there's some racist stuff as well.

As is the typical reaction of anyone confronted with their horrible past, Richards' first reaction was to re-write history, deleting all episodes of The Randumb Show from the internet. After The Ringer published their article repeating Richards' words, he issued a defensive statement dressed up in the costume of an apology. Took almost two days before he fell on his sword.

And, no, not every podcast of the era is full of racism and misogyny. The Fifty-50 Show, a game show podcast from this side of the pond, ran from 2012 to 2015. It featured a diverse cast who managed not to cuss, not to hate people, and to talk about nothing in a gently positive way. All episodes of The Fifty-50 Show fell off the internet some years ago, simply because nobody wanted to maintain it.

While guest hosts are going to cover for the foreseeable future, no good show can sustain itself on guest hosts alone. So, who is to be the new Jeopardy! host? We've worked out that it shouldn't be the show's producer. It might not need to be a newsreader, or a sports star, or an actor. Aren't there any game show hosts left in the business? Brooke Burns is available, and has done this kind of thing before. Sook-Yin Lee is available, comes from the CBC, and has done something in the game show world. Will the Clue Crew perfect their Alex Tre-bot? Can we start a Ball 35 For Jeopardy! campaign?!

Knitted Character! We have a challenge for you!

Last Singer Standing is the new entertainment show from RTÉ Television. It's a karaoke competition, judged by the new O'g3ne – proper pop stars Nadine Coyle from Girls Aloud, Joey Fatone from *nsync, and Samantha Mumba from Chums. The host is Eurovision failure Nicky Byrne. Glow Up Ireland will be hosted by Maura Higgins. There's no news new about a return for Winning Streak, we doubt it'll be back before the new year.

@ New from Mighty Productions, One and Six Zeroes, which will offer a million pounds and invite contestants to keep some of it. Dara Ó Briain hosts the contest, which involves teams of three, and will go out on Channel 4.

Countdown raised a few eyebrows this week, when a contestant offered a seven-letter P-word that can only be offensive to gay men. Standard practice on Countdown is to bleep out words that might cause offence, they've omitted the six-letter W-word, or the eight-letter A-word. We're surprised that Countdown let this word go to air: the most recent research {1} suggests it's "strong language" and likely to cause offence at any hour.

{1} Ipsos-MORI for The Junior Anti-Sex League, 2016.

Countdown Later in the week, Countdown considered matters scatalogical.

Quizzy Mondays continued. BBC Brain includes a Podcast Extra this year, before the contest starts we hear a little chat with the contestants. A slight shame they included a question about the new Mastermind host this week, we would have loved a Hidden Transmission Indicator for next week.

Only Connect featured the Debuggers and Steelers. Debuggers took an extra clue to confirm their picture connection, a decision with consequences. Steelers were allowed to think for a surprisingly long time after buzzing before they gave the right answer, a decision with consequences. Both sides had a great spot in Sequences: Debuggers with people whose names begin with months (like DEClan Donnelly), Steelers with the initials of Spice Girls tracks. Steelers took a ten-point lead into Missing Vowels, then Debuggers captain Jacob Warbrick got eight in a row to cut the gap. Steelers won, 21-20, and might count themselves a little lucky to have done so.

University Challenge, play "Despacito". This week's edition had Strathclyde take on Reading. Départements français with common geographical features in their names formed one visual bonus, and there were words formed from the letters of «algorithm». Both sides kept the scoreboard ticking over. A close match until the second visual round, then Reading pulled away to win 175-110. The team captain Michael Hutchinson scored eight starters.

Mastermind Clive Myrie, the new inquisitor.

"Less the idea that I am part of the problem for the contender. The problems for the contender are the spotlight, the chair, the questions; I am simply the facilitator of them." Clive Myrie takes over the English-language Mastermind on Monday. It's the final of Love Island (VM1 and ITV2, Mon), and of The Rap Game (BBC1, Thu). There's a Beat the English edition of The Void (ITV, Sat).

Pictures: South Shore, Talpa TV, YTV / Zeppotron, Avalon, YTV, Hat Trick / Hindsight

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