Weaver's Week 2006-07-16

Weaver's Week Index

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


ITV In Crisis, part one

Last Sunday, the national ITV channel recorded a record low share of viewing. Just 9.2% of viewing hours went to the Monkey. Of every hour people spent watching television last Sunday, just five and a half minutes was spent on ITV. "It's all because there was so much sport on last Sunday," said an ITV spokesimian, forgetting that his channel had shown the world cup final. Let's be honest, who was watching them?


Gallowgate / Talkback for ITV, 8pm daily

It is fair to say that ITV is in crisis. Advertisers are asking for their money back, schedules are being chopped and changed, and the new boss is cutting spending on all sorts of programming in order to send more money to his shareholders. Against this background, it's vital that the Monkey amasses as many hits as it can.

Since this column began, ITV has launched a lot of prime-time game shows, as opposed to reality formats. Some of them were utter flops - Shafted fell off air within a month, Judgement Day lasted half as long, and everyone's forgotten about Scream! If You Want to Get Off. Some of them were more successful. Well, slightly less unsuccessful. The Big Call was in development for almost as long as the Unified ITV, and did manage to see out its six-week slot. Simply the Best moved from 9pm to 2pm, and Celebrity Wrestling was relegated to the oh-so-prestigious 9.25 Sunday morning slot. The Great British Test fell by the wayside, Bognor or Bust didn't even make it past the M25, Celebrity Spelling Bee was a one-off (mercifully), and that Jamie Theakston Offers Unlimited Prizes show has vanished entirely.

There has, in fact, been just one decent prime-time game show format launched on ITV this century. Well, two if you count the "Win the Ads" section of Saturday Night Takeaway, which has been a straight 50/50 gamble since the second series. The big success was last year's Gameshow Marathon, seven different formats in as many weeks. What links these hits? The presenter, the one sure-fire weapon in ITV's armoury, Antan Dec. So, when the Geordie's production company offered a new game, and called it Con.Test, ITV snapped it up on the spot.

When it came to air, we note that the show has changed name. Could this fact be related in any way to the show's sponsor, an online poker site? Surely not. The logo is displayed in big gold lettering, a bit ugly on the screen, and rather reminiscent of the new and remarkably unreadable BBC Sport typeface. And the whole "big letters thumping about the screen" is rather reminiscent of the BBC THREE announcements.

Anyway, after entering through a handy gap in the audience, the contestants sit at one of six pods arranged on the arc of a circle. The host stands on a wedge to the other side of the circle, behind a scale model of the Lords Cricket Ground media centre, or the Quiz Pod from another successful* ITV quiz. The backdrop is the traditional starburst back-projection affair, and will turn from red to blue to green to black and back to red as the game progresses.

The six contestants met on the day before filming - in something called the Gril Ling - to introduce themselves to each other. Some of them took the opportunity to fib about themselves. We see brief clips, explanation of what's fact and what's fib, and reaction cut-aways.

The main game consists of five rounds of questions. The first round has eight questions, the others just five. All questions are multiple-choice, with three possible answers. Each correct answer in the first round is worth £500, then £750, £1000, £1250, and £1500 in the last round. After each round of questioning, the player with the lowest accumulated total leaves with nothing; the highest total after five rounds is the night's winner, takes £50,000, and comes back to do it all again on Sunday for a cool million. So far, we have a show that combines elements of 100%, The Weakest Link, and just about every elimination quiz ever - and the resemblance to Link is made stronger through a familiar four-note stab that has become Paul Farrer's calling card.

However, there's a twist the size of an elephant in the format. After each round of questions, the contestants discuss how well they've done, and how poorly they think the others have done. After a short period of bragging, they must step forward to the end of the wedge, and one of them can push a button and leave with the money they've accumulated so far. Even if the player who elects to leave - and only one player can go per round - isn't bottom, they keep their money and leave the game.

The psychological pressure is where the game distinguishes itself from all other shows - on the opening episode, the contestants managed to spot one of the other player's weak points, and slowly leverage him to take the money before he would have been eliminated. Friday's programme saw a super-confident player make the last two, and have so much bravado that she risked £10,000 for a slim shot at greater rewards, perhaps the best television moment of the week so far.

The contestants, of course, don't know how much money the other players have, though they do know their own funds. There is a summary for the viewers, supplied by the rich tones of Tim Caple. This column is not familiar with his works, but we expect that situation to change very soon.

Eliminated contestants - whether they have elected to leave or been removed for poor performance - are taken to a plush backstage room by Antan Dec, where they discuss their time on the show, speculate who might win, and who should go next. This discussion hides some frantic chopping and changing on-stage, as one of the podia is whipped off the set. Another reminder of Shafted, there.

So is the fact that the contestants are (roughly) in a line. There's no mileage from seeing other people's reactions to a particular answer. Unless, that is, the other contestants are displayed on the big screen, or on the contestant's podium - this is not clear. We do see footage of the contestants who have left the game, cheering at the future bail-out moments, but this is fairly obviously staged. Ties at the end of each round are broken by the speed of response, faster being better. The obvious metric - most correct answers across the game - tends not to break ties, and the format has eschewed most correct answers in the last round. It's the most equitable tie-break.

It's interesting to spot the references to poker that please the sponsor and seem to have been crowbarred into the format. Each show contains a piece of Antan Dec repartee - the only comedy moment in the entire hour - on the subject of a "poker face." The button to exit from the game might well be called a "bail-out button", after the US edition of Winning Lines, but the action of leaving is called "folding". The repetitive use of "to poker-face" as a synonym of "to bluff" rather grates. Indeed, the entire script feels like someone has done a last-minute search and replace, excising all appearances of "con" and substituting "poker-face".

Each episode is entirely self-contained. There's no particular reason for the show to run every day for a week - it could easily run every Saturday night for seven weeks, or every Tuesday and Thursday for three weeks with a Sunday-night final. If PokerFace turned out to be a mega-hit, ITV would have thrown away a ratings banker for the next month. On the other hand, if it turns out to be a mega-flop, it'll only hit the channel's ratings for one week. Such are the perils of timid scheduling.

Truth be told, this column wasn't terribly impressed by the opening day's programme - the format requires a steep learning curve, and it's difficult to enjoy a show while working out what's going on. We particularly didn't like the positioning of the third break, coming after the countdown to bail-out had finished, but before revealing who should have jumped. Perhaps it's the way the show encourages people to lie and deceive, and rewards them for doing so.

The format is probably good enough to come back next year, but no sooner. And is it alarmingly similar to the quiz round before they get to the briefcases on Millionenjacht? Top game show commentator Nick Gates explained it all last year; since he took the pictures, not two but six people have faced off in a mechanic he explained in text. And doesn't the US Deal Or No Deal logo (same page) look remarkably like the Poker Face logo? Nick also suggested giving the contestants a grand or two for turning up, which would really add some spice to the opening round or two - on a show that hypes up its promise to give away one million pounds by Sunday, it's hard to get excited over £1500.

By Friday night, this column found the show decently interesting. Ultimately, the format feels closest to prime-time The People Versus - there's a great show in there, but it's buried beneath one trapping too many, and in need of further work to become really great. Strip out the references to poker, run it in the troubled 5.30 slot for a month and build up to a big prime-time final. This column rather liked prime-time TPV, so we'll deem PokerFace just about an ITV Prime-Time Hit. And that instantly makes it the best thing the channel's produced in prime-time this decade.

The ratings were poor on Tuesday, but have been improving night-on-night since. These are, of course, only provisional figures, we'll not have accurate results for two weeks. Still, if the ratings continue to dip, maybe ITV will schedule more over-excited Geordie grannies discussing their favourite artists and shouting "Pollocks".


First round, episode 15

The last Thursday episode for the moment, and we see that John Humphrys has inherited the Angus Deayton Memorial Brown Suit. It doesn't suit him. It suits no-one.

Vivienne Radfar will discuss the History and Culture of Arabic Dance. She is wearing a jacket so red that she would blend neatly into the Full Stops set. Her performance is far better, 15 (1) sets the standard.

Derek Woolley will be discussing Charlton Athletic Football Club; like Mr Woolley, they play in bright red. And, like the team, he's playing top-flight football tonight - 14 (0).

Ashok Venkatesh has the Life and Fictional Work of Jorge Luis Borges. He's turned up in a bright blue shirt, and scores 11 (1).

Douglas Whitehead has the History of Firearms 1300-1900. He's appearing in a natty dark purple suit, and has a very attractive 13 (2) score.

There are two things wrong with the current Mastermind format. First, it's way too long. Twenty-four heats tax the patience of even the most patient, and that makes for an awful lot of disappointing heats. Second, when we do get a great heat, like this week, we know that the losers will go out, and less deserving winners will progress.

Now, what's happened to the chat before Mr Venkatesh's general knowledge round? Cut for being too interesting? He's not done too badly, but 22 (7) may be a pass too far.

Mr Whitehead also gets no chittery, which is very odd. Our learned friends at TV Cream once suggested that this would indicate the Five Question Play-Off is looming, though there was flimmery in the Junior final. Anyway, and quite remarkably, he also finishes on 22 (7). All it would take is for the other two players to have a complete failure of their general knowledge...

Mr Woolley gets a lengthy remark from the host, as if there's been a conversation cut. Lo and behold, his general knowledge round finishes on a rather dispiriting 17 (6).

Ms Radfar needs seven to win, but even though she has a question start clearly after the beep, she finishes on 21 (3).

Which means, as was rather apparent ten minutes ago, we have a tie. Mr Venkatesh is playing first, and gets three right. Mr Whitehead fails to get any questions correct, but does pick up on the inaccurate use of "America" as a synonym for "USA". Two of the five are sports questions, you wouldn't find this lack of balance on Brain of Britain.

The viewers of Mastermind will wish to remember that future editions will go out at 8pm on Monday. File this paragraph under "note to self".

This Week And Next

Coming up: Later in the month, a look back at the Sports Relief programmes, and there will be a review of Fort Boyard's French original. And if there's anything moderately, tolerably, even slightly interesting to report about this year's Big Brother, we'll be right on it.

It's a very short ratings watch, as just half-a-dozen titles made any channel's top 30 in the week to 2 July. The top three were all on Channel 4: Big Brother (6.2m), Cats (3.4m) and Deal (3m on Monday). BBC2 has 1.6m for University Challenge and Mastermind - the latter has risen to BBC2's top 10 programmes, a remarkable result until we consider that there were only about 15 prime-time programmes all week - and an unbilled edition of Weakest Link bunged out under Schedule WR (Wimbledon: rain) still got 1.1m. Nothing on ITV, nothing on BBC1. And nothing on Channel 5, so no change there.

On the digital channels, BBLB had 686,000 for its Sunday night outing, there were 320,000 for Deal on More 4, 180,000 saw Full Stops. Challenge's top-rated show was Gladiators, but Knockout repeats from a quarter of a century ago came just 10,000 behind.

Richer pickings in the coming week. PokerFace reaches its million-pound final at 8pm tonight. ITV is so confident in the strength of its schedule that The Price is Right will air different episodes at 1.30 and 5pm weekdays. Next Saturday sees the return of the Lottery Quiz, with Dale Winton's In It to Win It, innit.

The Transdiffusion bloggers point out that ITV shares have now fallen below one pound. This doesn't cause their immediate de-listing from the stock exchange, but it intensifies take-over speculation. A good performance from ITV's programmes across the summer will help to keep the station independent. With that in mind, we're off to watch Patrick Kielty Love Island. It is a far, far better thing...

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