Weaver's Week 2004-05-08

Weaver's Week Index

8 May 2004

Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.

Looking back with Weaver's Week

While looking back at the previous editions of this column, we found a review written at the time, but never published. Here's that lost review, only three months late and somewhat revised, and all the other events from this week.


Three contestants, all of them successful in their fields, sit about a triangular table. They all pretend to be cabinet ministers in a government. Three experts are in the room with them: a military man, a spin-doctor, and an intelligence officer. Over the space of 3 hours, edited down to a 60-minute show, they get a series of crisis-management situations and tricky decisions that your average here-today-gone-tomorrow cabinet minister might take. Our contestants must respond to the developing crisis by enacting one of the prescribed options, there are between two and four choices for each decision. They are told the results of their actions, and the decisions they take do have an effect on the later stages of the game. There is no officially declared victory or defeat result, but there is a summary of the effects of their decisions at the end of the show.

The pilot episode concerned a mass terrorist attack on London. Bombs demolished a major train terminus and its underground station, there was an attack on the electricity network, and an airliner refusing to take orders from Air Traffic Control. As the team failed to agree to shoot down the plane before it entered London airspace, we saw radar traces showing the aircraft missing Canary Wharf tower by dramatic license before hitting the Houses of Parliament with such force that Big Ben was undamaged. Partly as a result of the ensuing explosion, the Northern line underneath the Thames became so weak that the tunnel collapsed and the river started to run throughout the Underground network. The team had started to close the flood doors, but not in time. The estimated damage to the British economy of the decisions was £52 milliard. There was no estimate of casualties on screen.

Crisis Command was a very straightforward show, with an acknowledgement that there were no "correct" answers to pick, and everything had its downside. With eight decisions compressed into an hour's viewing, there was little time to explore alternate stories, or tell much of the pros and cons of other decisions. Should the show expand into a full series, perhaps a follow-up programme (cue BBC4) could explore the alternatives further. There was always sufficient information to point to the least-worst course of action, and this key information always arrived on time, perhaps a little too optimistic for reality. The show also came to a bit of a strange conclusion, with the ministers not having to handle the aftermath of the attack sequence.

The presentation was superb: real newscasters and accurate presentation graphics lent an air of realism. There were inconsistencies, in particular "live" coverage from the BBC's own news channel was from a set they had stopped using in December 2003, two months earlier. We wonder how long this show had sat on the shelf. One severely negative point: people walking across the camera shot on occasion can be forgiven in a mock-busy bunker, but when someone's crossing vision every few seconds, it becomes distracting and slightly headache- inducing to the viewer. Overall, though, it's a very good production effort.

We are, though, going to have to slap the BBC's ankles for claiming this isn't a game show "because it has no prizes." By that logic, "The Good Life" was never a comedy, because it had no laughs; and "Eastenders" isn't a drama, because its characters show no development. Game show-ness is in the eye of the beholder, and if this column deems a show to be game, then a game show it is.

"Crisis Command" is a game show because it follows in the tradition of television role-playing. KNIGHTMARE it is not, but merely swapping the sword- and-sorcery idiom for a modern political arena doesn't alter a fundamental similarity between the two shows. The rudiments of a scoring system are present and correct - the programme gave the number of "correct" and "incorrect" answers, and the cumulative damage to Great Britain PLC. It doesn't give any indication of the death toll, nor the least amount of damage that could have been inflicted on GBPLC. Indeed, it's not immediately obvious that the least damaging course of action would be the recommended one.

The teams have a lot of latitude: they could have blown up the aircraft at any point during an hour before it reached London, but this would have prevented them from discussing the craft later in the show. Might the producers have had another plan (perhaps a truck carrying a large explosive device) up their sleeve? It wouldn't be too surprising to find all sorts of unused Crisis Command scripts around, for possible future use.

There was no attempt at dramatic irony - there was no-one reprising the Jeremy Beadle role, saying "What the team doesn't know is that the tunnel will collapse in 16 minutes, so they must order to close both doors by 12 minutes or the entire system below the level of the Thames will flood."

To turn this into something even the BBC would call a game show, we might give the same outline script to two different teams, and rate their outcomes - perhaps by means of an Interactive Viewer Plebiscite, possibly by a studio audience, or even an Extremely Wise Man. While the pontificating head is not fashionable amongst television execs, it seems to work well for the likes of TIME COMMANDERS.

Alternatively, now that we've seen that the BBC can do live interactive game shows, maybe we can get Nicky Campbell to front a live interactive version of this format. "If you want to scramble the planes, press 1 or red. If you'd prefer to talk to the pilot, press 2 or green. To do nothing, press 3 or yellow. You have [looks at the bottom right corner, where there's a clock] 67 seconds remaining." Ultimately, the viewers could pit their skill and judgement against a team who had played the simulation before, or even who were seeing the same problems at the same time.

The pilot episode flowed, we assume, in real time, then edited down to broadcast. It would be possible to work the show to make events happen in real time, where an hour on screen took an hour in real life; this could lead to two- hour shows, too long for the regular weeknight - though as a weekend special, especially a live weekend special, it could be event television. Alternatively, the team could work on problems at a time warp, where one hour of screen time turns into a year, or even the four years of a parliament. That extended format allows one to, say, run the economy or the law and order strategy.

Other commentators (specifically, to offthetelly.co.uk) have suggested that Crisis Command owes a debt to wargame scenarios with James Burke, shows that presumably would have aired circa 1980. The UKGS staff is a bit too young to remember these programmes.

There are many options available to the BBC, and it would be a crying shame to see the format wither on the vine for lack of imagination. And, let's be honest, because it allows us to use the "Could You Ruin The Country?" joke again.


The Crisis Command programme was experimental television, and so didn't make an appearance in BBC2's celebration of its first forty years. Three game show- related people did turn up:

"I've never been a fan of quiz shows - I find them cheesy and patronising," says Anne Robinson of (The) Weakest Link. "The worst thing a contestant can do is get on the wrong side of the team on the green room before the programme. I've been voted the meanest woman on television, the worst woman, the nastiest woman on television. Isn't that great?"

"Do I sometimes set out to wrong foot people? Yes; and the reason for that I think can be justified. I just try to ask the question that the average reasonably intelligent viewer would like to see asked, and - by and large - ask it straight and direct. And, if you ask the question, you should get an answer. Or you should persist with it long enough that the average reasonably intelligent viewer could see that an answer has not been given... That business of asking questions, that is our raison d'etre, the reason we're there." - Jeremy Paxman, on his combative style of questioning on University Challenge. Or was it Newsnight?

Ian Hislop, whose Have I Got News for You spent most of its life on BBC2, sees the show as something of a watchdog for public affairs. Mr Hislop sees the class struggle in everything, and "allows" Paul Merton's side to win more often than not. Well, that's what he says. "People who agree to come on the programme deserve everything they get," says the regular panellist.

Perhaps that explains last week's episode, where Robert Kilroy-Shaft was mercilessly ridiculed, with Mr Hislop saying "Don't 'we' me", and eventually told by Mr Merton "Let's play a new game, where I get to complete a sentence."

There are perhaps more parallels with HIGNFY and Totally Top Trumps than our review last week noticed. Both shows are worth watching for the occasional moment of transcendence - on TTT, a wisecrack; on HIGNFY, a point they've been building up to for the whole show, if not some weeks. Both appear spontaneous, but have to be tightly scripted in part, and will stand or fall on the strength of those scripts.

And both TTT and HIGNFY have very flexible formats - a topical news quiz, or a stats-based quiz can take you anywhere. HIGNFY has lost rounds over the years - the Archive round, the What Happened Next round, the Props round, the Subheadlines round, and most of the Tabloid Headlines round have all dropped by the wayside over the years, as has the Caption Competition. Perhaps TTT might have jammed in a fifth round to appear more quick-moving and less reliant on its script. We look forward to more.


Slate magazine has been looking at the Survivor All-Stars series (last episode next week, apparently) and has reached some familiar conclusions. "Survivor is ... not the ultimate test of will, spirit, and political acumen, but a big roll of the dice... A player is only as strong as the alliances he or she happens to make in the first few days, long before it's obvious who will dominate.

"If Survivor were truly a game, there should be some way to orchestrate a comeback, and there isn't. This season, several castaways have actually been told 'Dude, you're next,' but have been powerless to change their fate because they've been unable to sever alliances formed early on. Even the vaunted immunity challenges are starting to look like a crapshoot. If a player is about to be voted off and happens to be met with a challenge that is not his or her forte - say, for example, you're not great at memorizing facts - has he or she failed as a player or just run out of luck?"

Looking back through the two UK series, this is nothing particularly novel. Series 2 was a classic example of how the bonds formed in the opening minutes would determine the rest of the series, and the bloc voting after Standing On A Log Challenge proved that the series would go exactly to form. Series 1, with its unbalanced merger, was less obvious to call ahead of time, but the strongest friendships in the opening days still turned out to be crucial, especially when battle commenced around day 30.

Slate suggests a couple of new schemes: people can only vote for a person once (presumably resetting the vote at merger), or even having the contestants negotiate who should leave the game. That is a strange idea, but it produced the correct winner on Teen Big Brother last year.

Survivor 1 winner Charlotte Horborough has returned to her work in the police force. Her dreams of becoming a television star in her own right have fallen rather flat, as Survivor has never taken off in the UK.

Could Survivor return to UK screens? Perhaps, and quite possibly in the format of I'M A CELEBRITY. Dump ten to twelve people we don't know in the middle of a less heavily sanitised Australian jungle, let them do not quite such silly things with Antan Dec for food. When it comes to elimination, put the bottom two in the public vote to the rest of the players, along the lines of STAR ACADEMY.


Weekly magazine Heat reported this week that the BBC "might not" commission a third series of Star Academy. This is not news, as readers of column back on March 20 will recall. Next week in Heat, all the stuff this column reported six weeks earlier: James Fox will represent the UK at Eurovision, Simon Cowell is famous in the US, Gopherman tells us nothing of significance, and mud baths in the Big Brother garden. Given the weather we've been having lately, that's no surprise.

Quickly returning to Robert Kilroy-Axed, as his daytime television show is now joining SHAFTED in the long list of Shows They Don't Make Any More. His company's show, NOW YOU'RE TALKING, often scored fewer than a million viewers. One of the co-hosts, Nicky Campbell, still hopes to host a daytime talk show, preferably one with a snappier title than his other entry in this column.

It's the last episode of GIVE NICKY CAMPBELL A SHORTER SERIES TITLE THAN THIS this week, THE VAULT is back on Tuesday night, which can only mean Vaultwatch will be back next week. Vintage Millionaire comes to Challenge on weeknights, while Paddy O'Connell hosts the Eurovision Song Contest Semi-Final on BBC3. Marty Whelan will do the talking on RTE2.

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