Weaver's Week 2003-12-06


It's something of a University Challenge special this week, looking into the growing tedium surrounding BBC2's primetime quiz. We start with this week's report.


Opening round, match 12: St Edmunds Cambridge -v- LSE

It's a slow week. We see two starters dropped before the picture round, and not on particularly taxing questions. It's also an international week: both colleges have a strong overseas bias, and there are players from India, Italy, the USA, Belgium and Ireland on the show.

Starter of the week (1): The blue inner cone, surrounded by inter-conal gases, which are themselves in turn surrounded by the barely visible outer diffusion flame, make up the flames of which common laboratory..?

It's still a slow week at the music round, mainly because only one set of bonuses has gone for more than one correct answer. St Edmunds has the lead, and they're helped when Thumper accepts an incomplete and surely late answer from their captain.

Starter of the week (2): In phonetics, what speech sound has been defined as an articulation with a closure or narrowing of the vocal tract such that a complete or partial blockage of the flow of air is produced. Examples include T, K, and Z.

The answer to one of the questions in a long run of dropped starters is "Michael Fawcett." Readers can insert their own jokes here.

The international flavour of this week's teams doesn't help in a series of bonuses about long distance British paths. Neither team can identify animal tracks, variously thinking "tiger" and "bear" are actually dogs.

By the second picture round, the whole show is beginning to deteriorate into tedium, with the LSE looking most unlikely to overcome a 55 point deficit, never mind challenge Reading for a place in the repechage. The 250 aggregate mark provides the landmark for this week, and it's passed with less than a minute to play. LSE picks up ten from a starter answered right on the gong, but loses 165-120. Thumper is unsure whether this will prove sufficient to come back. It won't, but that shows just how far the scores have fallen this year.

Josh Goldman topped for St Edmunds with 58.2; his side made 14/30 bonuses and one missignal. Chris Connolly was the mighty buzzer for the LSE, making 63.8; his side took 10/24 bonuses and four missignals. This column usually scores around 65% of the team's aggregate: this week, it claims 300, 105% of the contestants.

No change to the repechage board, so Hull will come back. 175 St John's Oxford 160 Hull | 150 St Hugh's Oxford 140 Reading

Answers to starters of the week: Bunsen burner, Consonant.


From time to time, a letter floods into the Weaver's Week office, and it often asks about the regularity with which University Challenge features in the columns. There are many reasons: the show is on every week for seven months, and it provides a regular fixture. Many competitors like to read someone else's opinion, especially when they're being named as their team's Most Valuable Player. And there aren't so many quizzes in prime time any more, so we need to make the most of the ones we've got.

However, this year's series of University Challenge has left ex-players and regular viewers nonplussed. What is happening to the show we know and get engaged with? To find out, we've analysed each show's results since the show returned to the BBC in 1994. Ties are treated as though both sides finished with the same score.

The complete champions roll, to help you remember which year was which:
1995 - Trinity Cambridge
1996 and 2001 - Imperial London

1997 and 1998 - Magdalen Oxford
1999 - Open
2000 - Durham
2002 - Somerville Oxford
2003 - Birkbeck

By definition, the mean score for a side will be half the mean game aggregate score, because the average total is the sum of two average sides. For most of this analysis, games of 320-40 and 200-160 are treated as equal; on average, both sides scored 180. We can treat individual side statistics as a proxy for the aggregate number of points in the game.

Over the nine complete series, the average (mean) score for an individual side anywhere in the contest has been a smidgeon over 193, and the median is exactly 190. That's our basic yardstick.

That standard hasn't been the same over time. In the 1996 series, the first won by Imperial, the average score was 208 points; three years later, when Open ruled the roost, the mean topped 209. The 2000 mean was 188, and the average score has sunk each year since to finish 2003 at 176.

We can split the scores out into First Round contests, and Knockout Phase (Second round onwards) contests. Repechage matches are ignored for both metrics. This analysis will go a little further, and compute figures for the Knockout Phase Without The Final, as the last show in the series has less quizzing - allowing time to present the trophy - and tends to be very nervy.

Teams have many reasons for underperforming in the opening round. They're not used to being in a television studio, nerves set in, some sides will be out of their depth, and it's not some familiar face from the student union asking the questions but Jeremy Paxman. Over the years, the mean First Round score is 183.3, the median 182.5. The very first series back in autumn 94 had low first round scores, an average of 162 and median 155. This is probably because none of the contestants quite knew the standard of questions, and Granada pitched a little more difficult, perhaps not wanting to show the quiz had gone soft. Scores in the opening round of the 96, 99, and 01 contests were particularly high, all coming in more than 10 points above the mean. Last year's series saw the lowest mean since the opening year, making barely 174 points per team.

In the latter stages of the tournament, we tend to see the team's true colours. Lucky winners in the opening round tend to fall in the second round, and winning sides will build up a head of steam as they progress through the tournament, scoring more and more points. The scores reflect that: the average team in the Knockout phase excluding the final will score 199.2 points, with a median of 197.5. The sides in 1995 hit their stride in the latter stages, averaging 208.6 points, and this feels like a better reflection of their quality than the confused first-round showing. 96 and 99 remain high-scoring years, and only 2003's series had an average below 190 - last year's sides averaged just 176.6 points at this stage.

Plenty of statistics there, but what do they tell us? There will be years when there are many good teams, and years when the quality is slightly lower. This is only to be expected, and a variance of perhaps 10 points per team above and below the average is only to be expected. But that doesn't explain why things took a turn for the worse last year.

Those who have been reading this column for some time may recall an ongoing "Rubbish Starter Of The Week" feature, where long and distracting and misleading starters received the ridicule they deserve. Originally, this was an occasional feature, but it popped up most weeks during the second round and into the quarterfinals at the beginning of this year. The increased number of poor questions must have some bearing on the lower scores. Thankfully, the number of such long starters has diminished this year.

A similar observation applies to the bonus questions. These have grown in length, and tested increasingly obscure and arcane points of information. Daily quiz Fifteen To One has a habit of asking the same questions in a different order every series, but University Challenge claims not to repeat a question, ever. That results in the question setters running out of accessible topics, and resorting to information gathered for information's sake. There comes a point when this starts to bore the two million or so viewers.

After twelve matches, this year's first round figures might change slightly, but won't alter that much. The sides are averaging 153 points each, a 20 point decline on last year's figure, and 30 points below the historical average. Even if these sides were less knowledgeable than their predecessors, they would fit within the patterns we've seen. Thirty points below average is too far to be explained away along the lines of "this year's students aren't up to scratch."

The long-term median aggregate in the first round is 380 points; only the London Met -v- St John's Oxford match has beaten this total so far, and five matches have finished more than 100 points below that aggregate. This year's median aggregate is just 290. We will get some low-scoring matches, but having an entire series below the average suggests that something has changed.

Fundamental in any notion of "average" is the assumption that we're comparing apples with apples. With this year's statistics, it's clear that we're not operating under the same circumstances as before. For whatever reason - probably a combination of poor teams, nerves, long questioning, and obscure subject matter - this year is so far below par as to be a law unto itself.


Liet! The Alternative Eurovision Song Contest took place in Ljouweert, Fryslan, two weeks ago. The contest celebrates minority languages, be they regional or stateless. Catalan, Welsh, Breton, they all took part, and didn't win.

Transjoik were the winners from Saamiland, their music a trance-like, drum driven backdrop over which a Sami 'joik' (soaring vocals) are added, their power and presence winning over the audience and the jury.

Gwenno from Cornwall hushed the crowd with her heart-rending song 'Vodya', describing 'hireth' (a word difficult to translate to English but a close approximate is 'yearning'), and the feelings of sorrow of those in exile from their country. Her father, Tim Saunders, a well-known Cornish poet, wrote the lyrics. She finished second in the contest proper, but won the audience vote.

Close runners-up were Nux Vomica from Occitania, whipping up the audience with their spicy mix of rap and breakbeats with a song attacking the French state's treatment of its regional languages, and Epitaff from Wales.


Danielle Lux is the new head of Celador, moving in from Channel 4. Her hits include Winning Lines, curiously also made by Celador, and Boys and Girls, no one is admitting responsibility for that one.

BBC1 has announced a new game show, in which people desperate for the publicity (including Jade Goody) will take their GCsSE. The channel has another show, to be played live on Saturday nights. Four teams will compete in the studio, while a fifth team will be made up of the Grate British Public. The audience will play along by interactive television, internet, SMS and phone voting. The team with the most points at the end wins. They could call it BEAT THE NATION - except C4 has already got that title.

A poll by a company that wants lots of free publicity confirmed that Britain watches a lot of telly. Second most memorable moment this year was Martin Bashir's hatchet job on Ingram, Ingram, and Whittock. It trailed only M Boyard's appearance on some London soap opera that no one watches because everyone's been watching 19 KEYS.

Robot Wars moves to a new slot at 2000 Saturday on C5. Scrapheap Challenge presents its Golden Sprocket awards, to the series' highlights. There's a special Questions Pour un Champion on TV5 this Friday, and Radio 4 welcomes back Inspiration in the Puzzle Panel slot.

Smartarse of the week: Richard Bacon asked "What is four times four divided by..." The contestant buzzed in, said "Eight," and amazed the other 19 KEYS contestants by being correct.

And finally: there's a recommended feature on how to build a good game show on Off The Telly. That's www.offthetelly.co.uk

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