Weaver's Week 2006-05-14

Weaver's Week Index

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


The Price is Right?

14 May 2006

Coming up, what could be the best University Challenge starter question ever.

University Challenge

First Semi-Final: London Business School v Manchester

No-one has been gifted a place in the last four this year, all the sides have earned their place. This column has never been particularly convinced by the LBS side, has been impressed with the Manchester side, and reckons they'll go one step further than the sides last year.

Manchester has by far the best of the opening exchanges, including this starter:

Q: Known to occur in nearly 140 species, most commonly among invertebrates, and often - but not always - in response to stress, or to a reduction in food supply, what activity was named by Columbus after the Caribs of Cuba and Haiti, who were alleged to be practitioners? [1]

The side does confuse the origin of Kosho as It's a Knockout rather than The Prisoner, but with the northern side getting the first visual bonuses - statues of people riding horses - they're already 90-0 ahead. LBS don't deserve this fate, still less to fall further behind on missignals.

And still Manchester keeps ploughing ahead, and no one can remember the first labour of Hercules. Hanging from hoops for a hundred minutes, if we remember correctly. The audio round is on hymns, and when Anthony Lerman gets the composer of "I vow to thee my country" [2], the LBS has reached the dizzy heights of nul points. They even know another composer's Handel, raising their score to 5. Manchester has 140.

London Business is on a roll, getting the next starter, and briefly reach the dizzy heights of 20 points before picking up another missignal. Gareth Aubrey stops the rot for Manchester by getting the French departments from their foundation date, 1790. At the second visual round - characters from films - London Business are still members of the sub-50 club, trailing 150-40.

The question-setters appear to be incorrect about the origin of the acronym TWAIN - the general view is that it stands for "Thing Without An Interesting Name", which is an interesting name, and so we go round in circles. Back at the quiz, Manchester is as at home with Roman roads as with WWII bombers, and Thumper doesn't really need to rush the side, it's not a close match.

The final nail in London's coffin comes when Chris Holmes wins the race to name Marge Simpson's maiden name [3]. LBS correctly name the man who brought prohibition to the US, but the final score is clear. Manchester has won, 250-60.

Gareth Aubrey made 117 points on the night; the side had 21/45 bonuses and one missignal. LBS had 5/15 and three missignals, with Anthony Lerman responsible for 22 points. He made 197 points over the series as a whole. Manchester's starter-conversion rate is up past 65%.

Next match... oh no, not again.

Second Semi-Final: Trinity Hall Cambridge v Liverpool

Trinity had two easy matches, but trounced Magdalen Oxford, so we won't hold poor opposition against them. Liverpool has had three relatively comfortable wins; unlike the other semi, this should be a tight match. Can hardly be more one-sided!

Liverpool gets the first starter; THC has the lead after the second. Just when we were about to berate the Cambridge side for knowing little about 20th century avant-garde music, they get this starter, a work of complete and utter genius:

Q: A presenter takes twelve seconds to read a question, eight seconds to view the looks of blank incomprehension, and four seconds to give the correct answer. How many questions does he get through in two minutes?
(Time passes.)
(After looking at the blank faces for, yes, eight seconds...)
Thumper: Not very many at this rate!

Iain Mathieson gave the correct answer there [4], Liverpool gets the visual bonuses, on the German Lander, and trail 55-30. We don't have enough mentions of Nordrhein-Westfalia or Schleiswig-Holstein on national television. The side pulls to within ten points with the next set of questions, but then Trinity Hall pulls ahead. Liverpool gets "Grand Duchy" from examples, concluding with Luxembourg. The next starter also goes to Liverpool, and that brings the sides level at 70. Thumper misses a chance to leave a further joke: when asked for a Greek letter, Liverpool suggests "Chi"; Rho was the answer.

The audio round is on adagios, another Liverpool pickup, and they lead 100-70. Trinity Hall gets their first starter in donkey's years to close the gap, and because Liverpool hasn't been doing well on the bonuses, it can come down quickly. The Cambridge side takes the lead with their third starter in a row, but now they're getting the bonuses wrong. The second visual round is writers in the Theatre of the Absurd, and THC has stretched its lead to 130-110.

Game on! Trinity Hall gets a starter and a bonus, Liverpool make a missignal, and Cambridge picks up the pieces. Thumper is hollering at the side to "come on" with real venom, but when the lead stretches to 70 with three minutes to play, we're going to have our winner. Trinity Hall is hardly running down the clock, but Thumper is really harrying them for an answer. Calm down, dear, it's only a game.

Liverpool gets a couple of starters, but very few bonuses. That's the difference between the sides this week, Trinity Hall wins, 200-140. Adam McNamara Jones was best buzzer for Liverpool, scoring 75 points. The side made 9/30 bonuses with one missignal; that compares to Trinity Hall's 15/38 with a missignal. Iain Mathieson was the best on the buzz for THC, scoring 68, but two colleagues were within a dozen points.

The key difference for the final: it's the bonus conversion rates. Manchester is 94/168 (56%) over the series, and 21/45 tonight. Trinity Hall is 74/170 (44%) for the series, and even worse tonight. In fairness, Trinity Hall was marked incorrect for two very close answers this week.

[1] Cannibalism

[2] Gustav Holst
[3] Bouvier
[4] Five

The Price is Right

Fremantle (as Talkback) for ITV, 5pm weekdays

Back in 1983, William G Stewart walked out in front of a studio audience in Nottingham, whipped them into a bit of a frenzy, and played Land of Hope and Glory at the crowd. Leslie Crowther walked through some double doors, invited four of the audience to join him on stage, and thus began the legend that was The Price Is Right. For four years, people were invited to play entertaining games to win some decent prizes, with the possibility of a fantastic prize at the end of the show.

After running its course on prime-time Saturday nights, Price Is Right was picked up by SKY Television for a few months, but proved too expensive even for new owner Rupert Murdoch's deep pockets. The format remained off British screens until 1995, when Yorkshire television sold their version to the ITV network. Fronted by Bruce Forsyth, the programme was now complete in a half-hour, compared to the full hour of Crowther's version. The Forsyth edition ran until 2001, and only ended because ITV needed the slot for the 74th weekly edition of Florizel Street.

At this point, it is generally necessary to describe the game for those who have not seen it. So, for our new alien overlords from the planet Zog, the four on stage try to name the price of an item (typically £200); the person immediately below the real price plays a major game for larger prizes (around £1500); and following a test of skill or judgement, could play for the grand prize (of the order of £15,000).

In making this programme, ITV is prepared to fund prizes approaching £25,000 per show. Even though the showcase won't be won every day, it's quite possible that there will be weeks where the show gives away six-figure sums. It's a far cry from 1984, where the total prize fund for an hour in prime time was £1750. Allowing for inflation, that's a figure of perhaps £5000 per hour; less than a third of the value of a showcase.

Let's be brutal, this isn't the greatest game show ever devised; there's a mix of about 50 major games, and one can construct only so much variety within this format. Ever since it began, the show has relied upon the crowd to generate much of its atmosphere. William G Stewart was brilliant at whipping up the crowd into a frenzy, and Leslie Crowther was marvellous at keeping them there. While Yorkshire's warm-up man may not have been as good as WGS, any deficiencies were more than made up by host Bruce Forsyth.

One change is obvious - the familiar fanfare has gone from the opening titles, to be replaced by some drumming. It's somewhere between Jungle Run and the beat of Riverdance. Joe Pasquale doesn't have the authority of Crowther or Forsyth, he's clearly an Entertainer figure rather than a Demented Salesman. There's nothing wrong with having an Entertainer host the show, it's simply different from what's gone before. The programme starts with inflated claims "You'll love it!" "The fun starts here!" "Britain's Brightest Game Show!" We thought that the wardrobe department on Deal or No Deal might take exception to that last claim, but then we saw one of the contestant's shirts, and that's about all we saw for the next ten minutes.

Back in his day, Leslie Crowther described his show as "mathematical and precise" in its arrangement of games. Pasquale's version takes this to a ridiculous extreme; after the introductions, the first main game is over in a flash, the second takes a long time to play, then comes the break, another quickie, the wheel of misfortune, and the showcase. Everything in the same order. Indeed, two of the first four shows had exactly the same three main games, which is just lazy scheduling from Fremantle.

Reviewing the original series, one critic called it a "blatantly commercial, aggressively self-centred form of spectacle." The format is always going to be centred on itself. It rewards people who know the price of everything; a chocolate fountain that featured in two of the first three episodes, and the celebrity special last year, is priced at £49. It doesn't reward people who know the true value of things (for the chocolate fountain, approximately zero.) And the contestants are still anonymous and interchangeable; the star of the show is not the player, or the game, or even the host, but the array of prizes. Forsyth never seemed to grasp this concept; at the risk of giving a graver insult than we intend, Pasquale has been born to it. There are signs of the host not taking second billing lying down; he's got a comedy sidekick, and his work on The Tiny And Mr Duk show confirms that Joe has killer comic timing.

It is gratifying to report that the daytime isn't as overtly commercial as the celeb version. Then, we criticised the way that suppliers were named on every product; now, the prizes may be tat, but they're generic tat. It's also pleasing to report that the purchasers are not being at all jingoistic in their choice of prizes, offering cars from all over the world.

At the end of the day, Pasquale's Price Is Right is remarkably apt for the new model ITV, a station that has completely lost its sense of direction. The show is well cast, undemanding, technically spot-on, but makes for sterile viewing. We wouldn't turn it off, though, and that counts for a lot.

Countdown Update

For a very long time, it looked as though the quarterfinal line-up we published in February would be the final one. Since the last update, we've had wins for Ella O'Donnell (2 wins, 259 pts, +18 to Par); David Kyte (1w, 147 at +43); Kate Strong (1w, 113 at +48); Heather Culpin (4w, 440 at +37); Carole Bramwell (5w, 503 at +35); Tony Downing (4w, 353 at +91); Trevor Hancock (1w, 133 at +47); Jan Gates (3w, 319 at +69); and Helen Shutler (1w, 125 at +42).

Then, at the very end of April, Jon Corby began an octochamp run, the first since Matthew Shore's in late February. He notched up 128 points in one game, the season's top score - so far. Jon has been playing for the Great Ormond Street hospital, and his sponsor form is online. For our purposes, the success was timed perfectly - the new champion could not win six and lose one before finals week began. The line-up is therefore as follows:

18 May: Conor Travers (8 wins, 890 at -61) v Daniel Peake (6w, 585 at +60)

Two youthful contestants meet in the first match. Conor swept all before him at the end of November, beating par in every game. Daniel had already been and gone, and was both lucky to make six wins, and unlucky to lose his seventh. Neither contestant has played a studio game in many months.

23 May: Paul Howe (8w, 815 at -19) v Keith Maynard (8w, 795 at +12)

Paul notched up his eight wins in early February, nothing particularly spectacular, but very efficient. He was the third octochamp in a run of four, and they do tend to blur into one at this distance. Keith was the first, in mid January, and was a model of consistency, always declaring within 7 of Par.

22 May: Matthew Shore (8w, 840 at -44) v Michael Bowden (8w, 739 at +16)

Michael was the second in the run of octochamps, beginning in late January, getting his only century in his last game. Matthew, the last in the run of octochamps, finished with a score of 126; that was a 25-under-Par performance, the best for the series. Remember, Par works like golf, a low score is good, a negative score is very good, and 25-under on one round is phenomenal.

19 May: Jon Corby (8w, 857 at -46) v Christine Armstrong (7w, 693 at +50)

Christine lit up the early days of January, and came within a crucial conundrum of joining the octochamp ranks. Hers was a solid performance. Jon is coming into the tournament warm from his recent success.

At this stage, it's difficult to look beyond Conor coming through the top half, with Jon and Matthew meeting in the second semi-final. However, in a single-elimination format, upsets are to be expected.

The Finals Week review will appear on 28 May.

This Week And Next

This week's Mastermind review has again been held over for reasons of space, and will appear in next week's Week, alongside a review of the University Challenge final and the Eurovision semi-final.

The BAFTA Television Awards this week. The Apprentice continued its winning ways, taking the gong for Factual Feature ahead of Dragons' Den. ITV's one winner on the night was The X Factor, for best entertainment show; it defeated HIGNFY, Come Dancing, and Jonathan Ross. The moss collector gained revenge in the Entertainment Performance category, ensuring that Noel Edmonds' streak of not winning a BAFTA continues without a break.

Did someone say break? That, according to press reports, is what Deal or No Deal will be doing for about six weeks over the summer. The gap will allow the host to spend more time with his money, and the banker to spend more time with his money.

Quickly through the ratings for the last week of April: 6.4 million for Jet Set, 5.3m for Dance Fever, 5m for a disappointing episode of HIGNFY, and Millionaire was stuck down on 4.3m. The Apprentice had 4.7m, with 2.7 million sticking around for the interview. 2.8m saw the Liverpool - Herts UC quarterfinal, 2 million for Great British Menu and Buzzcocks, but Eggheads was down at 1.9m. Deal scored 3.7m. The lure of New Bullseye is wearing off, just three ratings in six figures this week. Pop Idle US has 690,000 and was ITV2's top show, Deal is settling down at 300,000 on More4.

The Apprentice reached its conclusion this week, amid some disgruntlings from viewers who expected Mr Sugar to reach his decision based purely on what the contestants had done during the show, and not how well they had worked for him in the four months since. Mr Sugar assures us that he reached his decision during the contest, and filmed both endings to leave the contestants in the dark; his record for veracity in the past speaks for itself, and is one reason why this column has paid little attention to the show. A celebrity version for next year's Comic Relief appeal looks inevitable, and a shift to BBC1 is possible.

In the hour from 8.30 next Thursday night, there are no fewer than four game shows, only one of which will be repeated. BBC2 has the seventh Mastermind heat at 8.30, followed at 9 by the fourth nightly heat of BBC4's Young Musician contest. Running from 8 until 10.15 on BBC3 is the Eurovision Song Contest Qualification Round, and starting at 9 on C4 is the seventh series of Big Brother, running into August.

The next Week will be out on Saturday, filling the gap between Eurovision semi and final. We'll pick up on Big Brother when we've caught up on one or two loose ends.

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