Weaver's Week 2006-09-17

Weaver's Week Index

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


Alaunus Held Hostage

The Advertising Standards Authority has delivered its report into the Big Brother Golden Ticket draw. The major complaint - that the draw was rigged - has been dismissed. The ASA has found the programme makers guilty of a technical infringement, as the independent adjudicator wasn't with the draw equipment throughout. We await the ICSTIS report, into the vote-back saga.

Raven The Island

CBBC, 7 August - 1 September

Raven The Island really was a strange beast. By turn, it was the most predictable, most surprising, most buttock-clenchingly tedious, and most entertainingly brilliant addition to the Raven canon.

Unlike the regular series, Raven The Island (which we'll contract to RTI) has a central plot. Raven's home island, Alaunus, has been over-run by forces loyal to the evil Nevar. An enchantment means that Raven cannot set wing on the island until Nevar is defeated. Raven's sister, Erina, has remained on the island, where she is kept company by Harrid, the spirit of the Enchanted Oak tree. Raven has been training twelve warriors in various skills, and believes that they can penetrate Nevar's defences, retrieve an acorn from the Enchanted Oak, and bring it back to the mainland. From that acorn, Raven will be able to construct new Staffs of Power, and defeat Nevar in battle.

Still with us? Good. It gets more complex. Erina can't join the warriors directly, because that would bring demons down on them in no time. Instead, she has left pieces of a map, allowing the three teams of four to find time-pieces. These time-pieces will power an Eclipse Clock, the purpose of which is to extend a total eclipse of the sun, for it is only during that time that a portal to Nevar's fortress opens, thus allowing the acorn to be recovered.

That, as most readers will agree, is a decently detailed backstory, allowing for plenty of imagination in the plot as exposed on television. The actual execution wasn't quite as good. For the first three weeks, each team took on one challenge per day, either for survival or to collect timepieces. By cutting from one team to another to another then back to the first, viewers lost the thread of the day's task. Almost without exception, there wasn't quite enough game to fill the 27-minute slot, leading to an awful lot of filler - words from the contestants, interplay between Erina and Harrid, recaps, previews.

For the first few days, this feeling of growing tedium wasn't helped because the nature of the peril wasn't clear. Does this programme owe something to Interceptor, where the journey appears random but is actually planned, and there are tricky challenges en route? Perhaps not, because we can't remember an episode of the Annabel-and-Mikey show that wasn't gripping.

Many of the games were re-used between the various teams, and the familiarity began to breed contempt. Another boat with some assembly required before it'll float. Another bridge that's been destroyed. The most obvious and painful re-use of a location was It's That Cliff Again; each team had to go up the cliff, down the cliff, up and down the cliff, in fact do everything except get it to sing "Summer Holiday". This part of the series lasted for fifteen episodes, and none of them seemed to go at much more than a snail's pace. A full week could have been cut out without affecting the show too badly.

In the final week, the teams joined, and RTI finally came through on the promise it had showed. Perhaps more than anything before, this was the live-action Knightmare, with the teams collecting items on one day, with a significance that was not explained at once, but of use later in the quest. There were no red herring items en route, though some were delayed almost indefinitely - for instance, a "get out of jail free" card was picked up on the first day, and not used until the final week. The last two days - containing an individual physical game, team skill and brain games, and a collective mystery game - might provide the template for the weekly final on the regular Raven.

The final week redeemed the programme, but we found it to suffer from one philosophical setback. RTI was a production of CBBC, and viewers might figure that it's inevitably going to end up in a victory for the forces of good, and defeat for the Nevar incursion force. We're not going to say whether this came to pass or not, but the thought was never far from mind.

There are ways to improve this format, were it to be played again. As it stands, there's not quite enough game to fill four weeks of programming. It could be possible to have one team to work together for two weeks, then start afresh. The multiple team element lends itself to games that one team starts and another finishes, or for challenges (such as the time mills in this year's show) completed by a team on its own but gaining an advantage if all are successful.

We weren't particularly impressed with the very end of the programme. It ended immediately after a resolution of the overall objective, with Erina finally meeting the surviving contestants and congratulating / commiserating with them. We don't see Raven with the acorn, or using the tree, or his battle with the forces of Nevar. This is a bit of a missed opportunity.

Worse, far worse, is that RTI breaks the defining characteristic of children's drama. The one theme running through every dramatic production ever made for children is that, by the end of the piece, no harm has befallen the good guys. Whatever may have happened, the young heroes are alive and well and walk off changed people / return to their old life / have a slap-up meal of bangers 'n' mash. But not on Alaunus, where the fallen warriors are just left in limbo. Not only does this introduce a whole host of continuity problems, but we dread to think of the postbag from parents of five-year-olds who are convinced that Nevar has claimed new recruits.

For all the criticism, for all the things that could have been improved, Raven The Island showed great promise. It's not the finished article, not by a long way, but there is the germ of a great series in place. To that extent, it reminds us of another series that took two series to really get going.

ITV Fights Back

The BBC has the patience to see a programme idea, put it into action, see what could be improved, and build up a circle of better programmes. What does the commercial opposition have in store for this autumn? An extreme series of Jungle Run? An even sillier version of Shark-Infested Custard? More coverage of Junior Eurovision? Something so good that it'll leave Noel Edmonds wondering why he ever left children's television?

Er, no. The highlight of the traditional children's hour on ITV this autumn is (wait for it) ancient repeats of Heartbeat. You know, the 60s nostalgia series starring a very young Nick Berry. ITV has cut its programming for children back to the bare minimum allowed under its license - an hour from 3pm each weekday, and two hours during the weekend. Everything shown in this hour a day is a repeat, or imported, or (usually) both. ITV has recently applied to the television regulator OFCOM to cut those seven hours still further.

In fact, ITV has decided to close its in-house children's department entirely. Estelle Hughes, the commissioner for the CITV strand, resigned last month. Jungle Run, an in-house production, is now finished. There'll be no Splash Camp introducing people to water sports. No How explaining how the world works. None of the many dramas that the commercial channel has made over the years. Just animated babble trying to shift plastic toys, and scratchy repeats of century-old nonsense.

If we're to believe ITV, this crisis has been precipitated by a pending ban on the promotion of unhealthy food during programmes that children watch. This column doesn't believe a word of it. Back in November 2001, the then-controller of CITV, Janie Grace, said that her department was being starved of funds, suffering a 30% reduction in one year alone. It's clear that ITV has used the pending restriction on food advertising (a ruling has magical political resonance far in excess of its medicinal value) to complete its plan to exit the children's programming arena.

"Oh, but you can always watch CITV on its own dedicated channel," says the company. Well, yes, you can. If you have digital television, that is. Something like a third of the nation's homes do not have any form of digital television receiver, and the majority of sets are still only capable of receiving the terrestrial channels. And CITV is fine if you are five years old, and like watching animations. If you're between nine and twelve, then CITV has no more than two hours per day for you.

"And there are lots of other digital channels for children aged around ten," is another argument. This is true, but there's a significant catch. Neither of the big players - the Nickelodeon channels nor the Disney channels - commissions any significant series for the UK. Nick shows Mr Bean and My Parents are Aliens, but these were made and shown by ITV some years ago. At least the channel tries - the Disney Channel schedule for the week ending today has exactly nothing produced in the UK, with all 126 hours of programming originally made in the USA. Yes, we should and will mention Inside Clyde, but that is very much the exception to the rule.

There hangs another argument, the loss of a distinctive British cultural voice. Because the British and Americans speak a similar language, it is tempting for schedulers to import foreign programmes without further thought. This denies the clear differences between the two countries. It does away with the various story-telling mythologies from the various parts of this country, and replaces them by a unified mythology thought up by a boardroom full of men without a single creative bone in all their bodies. Already, ITV has stopped its occasional story-telling exchanges with other broadcasters around Europe, and has withdrawn from the Junior Eurovision song contest. This is an unfortunate cultural isolation, and it shows every sign of continuing.

What are the other terrestrial channels doing? The BBC has thirteen hours per day of programming for young children, between nine and twelve hours of programming for older children, and the vast majority of both channels' output is made in Britain. Thanks to budget constraints - the entire children's division has a smaller budget than BBC3 - most of it also appears on the analogue service, either as a simulcast or in repeats. Between them, the BBC channels give over six hours of children's programmes per day - and that's not counting the block of programmes for schools and colleges. The Beeb has said that if ITV is allowed to drop its afternoon children's block, it would need to reconsider whether to run its programmes on BBC1 or BBC2.

Channel 4 gives over much of its weekend daytime schedule to shows for teens and early-twentysomethings, the only analogue channel to explicitly target this age group. Channel 5 has programmes for the very young in the morning, with shows for slightly older viewers on the weekend. Both channels, however, rely primarily on imported shows rather than making their own.

"It's all a losing cause, because children have the internet and computer games these days," is another cry. They do, but if the programmes are good enough, children will watch them. Word of mouth in the playground will expose the flaws in this argument. Some youngsters would have preferred to play computer games, but we can be sure that a CITV production of the Harry Potter books a few years back would have brought the viewers flooding in.

There's one final argument in favour of making good programmes for young people - in twenty years time, these will be the people you will want watching your channel. Wean your audience on a diet of Knightmare, Press Gang, and Dangermouse, (or Jigsaw, Grange Hill, and Blue Peter) and they'll respect you for years to come. Tell your audience to go away and they'll never get the habit of watching your channel.

There is a greater philosophical argument - the entire debate is couched in terms of what adults think is good for children. It is important to put aside the biases that grow from advancing years, to set apart the fears of parents and those who wish to be seen to do something. It is necessary to start to think about young people's worlds from their point of view, not dismissing them to the margins.

ITV has made many decisions of breathtaking foolishness over the past couple of years. The channel is clearly panicking like a headless chicken, an impression that has become more pronounced in recent months since head honcho Charles Allen resigned. The channel has tried the medicine of putting its profits first, and the Grate British Public has shown that it will not stand for this. There is nothing left to lose by the channel returning to its core values, and making programmes to attract young viewers. Similarly, there is no reason why other commercial rivals should not commission programmes from the UK.

Readers may be interested in a group campaigning for proper programming for young people. The Save Kids' TV campaign is at http://www.savekidstv.co.uk


First round, episode 24

Neil Philips begins the final first round heat with the Career of the Rock Band R.E.M. It's one of those subjects that this column can play along with, and we reckon we might have scraped into double figures. Mr Philips bags the lot, scoring 17 (0).

Katharine Drury discusses the "Roger Brook" novels of Denis Wheatley. We know less about this subject; Mrs Drury also secures 17 (0).

David Clark has a big subject, the Summer Olympics 1896-2004. It's a slightly slow start, but Mr Clark continues to power ahead, notching up 14 (2).

Finally, Andrew Snedden tackles the Life and Career of Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Someone had to give this week, and Mr Snedden finishes on 6 (3). We have chatter, and a brief lecture in which Mr Snedden expounds Sr Guevara's errors, before the former advances to 11 (6).

Mr Clark picked the questions he thought might come up, and seems to have done a good job. He talks about the discrimination faced by women, and finishes on 24 (5).

Mr Philips has been a fan of R.E.M. since 1984. Was that when the band made its first appearance on The Tube? His general knowledge round is not the greatest, finishing on 22 (0).

Mrs Drury discusses the rare occult themes in Mr Wheatley's work. Her general knowledge round is also a little faltering, but she wins on 25 (2).

And that ends the first round. The final eliminators of Mastermind begin next week.

This Week And Next

Research acknowledgements this week to Colin Nobbs and to danah boyd.

BARB ratings for the week to 3 September, and X-Factor (9.1 million) remains in pole position. In It To Win It (6.8m) and Maria (5.9m for the results, 5.1m for the performances) take the other podium positions. Test The Nation's Patience had 5.1m seeing the questions, but only 3.85m checking their answers. ITV's Millionaire had 4.3m, the Love Island final 4.05m, and 3.35m tuned in to the presentation in the All-Star Cup.

Dragons' Den attracted 3.05m on Thursday night, and beat out all six episodes of Deal or No Deal - 2.75m on Friday the best effort, and four episodes were beaten by The Utterly Rubbish Charlotte Church Chatter Show. University Challenge and Mastermind both scooped 2.4m, with 2.05m for the best Link. 1.9m saw the Story of Light Entertainment on the talk show, and The Best of the Worst pulled in 1.65m. It'll be interesting to see how few tuned in the following week. On the digital channels, 1.15 million watched an X-Factor repeat, 200,000 saw Raven The Island, the same number who saw the top-rated DOND repeat.

Next week sees new series of Trust Me I'm a Holiday Rep (weeknights C5) and Quote... Unquote (Monday R4). The highlight is the latest addition to TV5's schedule, La Carte Aux Tressors (Wednesday 5.33 and Saturday 10.16). Before we meet again, we'll also see Noel Edmonds return to Saturday night BBC1.

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