Weaver's Week 2007-07-01

Weaver's Week Index

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


Reasons to be Grumpy

This isn't fair. It's no longer a test of knowledge.

Maybe it's the weather, maybe it's the news. We're in a grumpy mood this week, and we have some reasons for our foul mood.

Reason 1: 0898 300 000 quid

Image:Square Brainteaser.jpg
OFCOM, the British broadcasting regulator, has levied a £300,000 fine on Channel 5 for many breaches of their broadcasting code. The penalty relates to live episodes of the Endemol (trading as Cheetah Productions) show Brainteaser shown in the first three months of the year, when fake names were announced as winners on three occasions, and staff posed as winners on another two occasions. OFCOM found eleven (count 'em!) further "similar or identical instances" of unfair competitions in Brainteaser and its spin-off programme MEMORY BANK. OFCOM said it had decided to fine C5 because of the "very serious nature" of the breaches as well as the "long-standing failures" in compliance – Channel 5 confessed to similar incidents on both Brainteaser and Memory Bank as far back as 2003. Channel 5 will have to broadcast an apology in Brainteaser's old lunchtime slot, and in prime-time.

The broad facts came out in March, when the show was removed from the daily schedule. The actual details, though, are quite mind-boggling. Researchers in the studio called people at home, using details left on the website or on the premium-rate telephone number. If the caller was right, they were deemed "blue"; if the caller was wrong, they were deemed "red". When the researchers were unable to find a "blue" caller in the time allocated – and for many competitions in the show's final week, this was just two callers, a "green" caller was used. This "green" caller was one of the production staff, calling from a line elsewhere in the building.

We'll just repeat that bit. If the first two callers were wrong, the production staff invented a winner.

In its evidence, the channel told OFCOM there was "no evidence" that the system had been motivated by "dishonesty for either personal or financial gain", or to prevent prizes being given away. The broadcaster continued, "Endemol should never have permitted it to have happened in the first place or allowed it to have continued," and that "On a number of occasions Endemol failed to meet its obligations and the standards required of a production company making this kind of programming."

The regulator found that C5 had acted in good faith, and had not intended to deceive the public, but that as the broadcaster of the quiz it remained its responsibility to comply with the code. The main criticism was aimed at the production company, Endemol. The procedure to fake winners "had become an established part of the procedures in place for the conduct of these competitions over a period of years dating back to 2003. The details of this formalised procedure also appeared in two separate documents... In these cases the audience was substantially misled. The formalised procedure that had been adopted by the programme was totally unacceptable and showed a blatant disregard for not only the audience of the show, but also those participating and spending money by entering some competitions which were not being run fairly... The editorial needs of the programme overrode the consideration of fairness to those participating in the competitions and to the audience overall."

OFCOM's finding delivered a shot across the bows of those who believe Endemol is a competent company. "The Committee noted that Endemol was a large and experienced production company and understood Channel 5’s reasons for believing it was well equipped to produce such a programme. However, on the evidence available to it, the Committee considered that this confidence had been misplaced and that Endemol appeared to have failed to take the necessary steps to deliver a compliant programme." In other words: they're a bunch of amateurs.

The report raises a greater policy question. In effect, Channel 5 had rented its airwaves to Endemol for the hour that Brainteaser was running – C5 took no share of the winnings, and didn't pay a penny for the hour's programming. OFCOM is only able to take sanctions against Channel 5, not against Endemol. It's clear that natural justice is not being served here; if further legislation is needed to catch up with the changing television market, then so be it.

The conclusion is that, for the second time in a month, a broadcaster's name is dragged through the mud because of incompetence from Endemol's productions. Endemol was failing to run its production team effectively. Brainteaser will not be returning, and discussions between C5 and Endemol regarding compensation are continuing. It is not known if anyone at Endemol has the honour to resign.

Reason 2: The National Lottery People's Quiz And Wildcard

Fever Media for BBC2, 21 June; and BBC1, 23 June

Image:Square People's Quiz.jpg
After many people had been auditioned, after a seemingly interminable series of programmes, it finally came down to the crunch. The People's Quiz was about to find its champion.

The finals series began with the Wildcard final on Thursday evening (or Saturday morning, for viewers in Scotland.) The top five performers in the regular show, plus the person left standing at the end, played off to find who would win the series, and get to stand behind the rightmost podium in the grand final. In spite of lashings of Canned Crowd, and the best efforts of the production staff, it was clear that here was the final of a competition that nobody cared about. Jamie Theakston and his last six contestants played their little game in an atmosphere of almost funereal silence.

For the record, the game was the traditional 90 seconds of rapid-fire questions, last wrong answer loses. The only novelty: initial possession was decided by who could answer a buzzer question correctly. The final began with an achingly-long recap, then the champion from the last show (who had just two wins, but was undefeated) played the number 5 seed. The winner met number 4, and so on until the winner of the match involving the top performer was declared the champion. Any similarity to the second half of sometime Channel 4 filler Number One is purely coincidental.

The overwhelming impression from the Wildcard show was that it lacked atmosphere. At least we couldn't say the same about the Saturday final, where there were supporters for each contestant, banners waved, people wearing stripy uniforms. Even so, and even though this programme would more than double the BBC's top payout in a quiz, the final did not make for event television. The format remained almost the same, though the period of questioning and nomination in the opening round was cut from 105 seconds masquerading as two minutes, to an honest 90 seconds. Stephanie and Mark, two of the faces we had come to know over the weeks previously, went through first, joined by David.

Two incidents stand out in the final qualification round. Alan, the champion from the Wildcard, was asked of what "ergophobia" is the fear. "Manual labour," he replied; after a clear pause for guidance, the questioner deemed this to be an incorrect answer; "work" was required. In their defence, the Oxford English dictionary defines the term as a fear of work; in Alan's defence, "labour" would have been an acceptable synonym. We understand that the obvious pause on the televised show came from filming stopping and starting again, and the studio audience jeering the decision so much that the scene had to be re-recorded. At the end of the round, only one contestant was left standing, and Will progressed without answering a buzzer question correctly. This raised our hackles rather; why should he not have to prove his worth for a place in the next round? Would it not make better television to have everyone fail, then re-join the competition for another final round?

We can't fault the producers for the bout of nerves that made the second round a complete non-event – with the first two contestants failing to score, the last two needed just one answer each to progress. But we can, should, and will give them very bad publicity for the final. It was still the best-of-five hidden Q questions, from twelve categories. Included in many of these questions were atrocious swerves of the sort that used to bedevil University Challenge. For instance, it's dangerous to interrupt a question that begins "Copacobana and Ipanema are..." for the answer may be Brazil, Rio de Janiero, perhaps the Sugarloaf Mountain. It's a bit unreasonable to expect it to continue, "...beaches in Brazil; they are washed by the waters of which ocean?" A list of ingredients that make up a Waldorf salad is reasonable; using them to ask the name of the city whence the dish originates is not. We already knew that the last round was something of a lottery, it's desperately poor form to make so many of the individual questions subject to such whim.

Image:Square Stephanie Bruce.jpg
In the event, the final turned on another unfortunate but correct ruling – Mr. Labbett said that the "Maigret" books were written by Georges Simenson; the correct answer is Georges Simenon, without the second S in his family name. His opponent, Stephanie Bruce (pictured left), had already won the battle of interruptions, guessing Ségolène Royal and The Police for questions that had many possible answers; giving the correct name ensured that she won the title, and the large prize.

We've always liked the idea of having a Big Quiz, one that built up over many weeks, was well-executed, fun to play, and fun to watch. If we're being brutal, this series failed to meet any of those criteria. We understand that far fewer than the quoted 200,700 people auditioned, we're certain that far fewer than the quoted 200,700 questions were published, and we have already documented the many ways in which the poor organisation failed to make the show fun for the viewer. Having the best players qualify for the final and then do nothing for two months except sit around on chairs was an utter waste of their talents. The final round, in particular, leaves a sour taste in the mouth; was it possible that the position of the winning questions was determined after the fact? Indeed, was it possible that the question was sometimes twisted to fit the answer? That we're even entertaining such a concept suggests that the programme failed in its core aim: to entertain the viewer. The amazingly rubbish viewing figures suggest that many others found less dull things to do, like watch paint dry.

It certainly failed in its other commissioned aim, to advertise The Lottery Corp.'s many and varied methods of getting otherwise-intelligent people to part from their hard-earned cash and spend it on colossal wastes of time and effort. This column does not endorse gambling, but if we were the sort to lay a few quid, we suggest that The People's Quiz will not return in 2008.

There's one final point to make. We still don't know who gave the voice-over to the daily programme, even though they were included in the credits to the final programme. How is this possible? Because the BBC, in its infinite foolishness, decided to squash the closing credits down to the bottom right-hand eighth of the screen, turning perfectly legible text into something that no-one on the planet could read. If text of such size were used in a commercial, the regulators would rule it too small to be seen. A similar decision was taken at the end of the grand final, completely spoiling the mood and obscuring footage of the celebrations. Channel 4 allowed the closing credits to the Countdown final to play out uninterrupted, without so much as a word of the programme that came afterwards. The independent sector let the series finish in its own way; the Beeb forced it into a small box, and made it a deeply unsatisfactory experience.

Bit like the rest of the series, really.

Reason 3: Britain's Got Talent

SyCo / Fremantle for ITV, 9-17 June

We spent a recent Saturday evening watching the last semi-final of the British talent competition. Will it be won by a juggler? A stand-up comedian? A magician? Or, like every other talent competition since their re-invention a few years ago, a singer?

Simon Cowell is to blame for this show; he's joined by actor Amanda Holden, and by Piers Morgan. Antan Dec introduced Mr. Morgan as "the most honest man in light entertainment." This, lest we forget, is the same Piers Morgan who was fired as the editor of the million-selling Daily Mirror newspaper barely a week after running a spoof advert for a game show where people would risk catching an infection for money and exposure.

What infections might one catch from watching this show. Well, Antandec-itis is always a possibility. ITV has wheeled out the big guns for this show, and there's no better face for anything to do with light entertainment than the two-headed Geordie behemoth. We might catch Slime on the Brain; Mr. Cowell knows what he likes, which is fine, but thinks that he has the right to impose his views on the rest of the nation without let or hindrance.

X-ma is also a possibility; the gimmick on Britain's Got Talent is that each of our three judges has a buzzer, and they press it when they've had enough of an act. When they've pressed their buzzer, a big X lights up; if all three push their buttons, the lights go down and the act terminates. Inevitably, there's a conversation with each act and the judges, keeping proceedings at a slow pace.

And, after all eight acts have performed, there's a brief telephone vote, at premium rates, naturally. And it is brief – the voting opens just before a recap of the performances, there's a commercial break, and then the lines close. Voting for the final, at least, lasted an hour. The BBC has determined that such short bursts of telephone voting are too short for comfort; ITV has its own standards.

There was a sizable prize at stake; the winner would be given £100,000 in cash, would appear at the annual Variety Performance in the autumn (this year, to be shown on ITV), and surely would be signed by Simon Cowell's record label. Assuming they were a singer. In the end, the winner wasn't the six-year-old gap-toothed child, and that's probably a very good thing for her, and for us. No, the winner was Paul Potts, a journeyman tenor who performed "Nessun Dorma". Mr. Potts has some previous form – he won an episode of My Kind of Music when it was hosted by Michael Barrymore (remember him?) and was a town councillor in Bristol for some years.

His performance was interesting while it lasted, but completely immemorable. Bit like the series, really.

This Week And Next

Ratings for the week to 17 June, and 11.6 million people found Britain's Got Talent to be interesting while the Sunday final lasted. The final of The Apprentice scored 7.1m, and third place goes to the final of Celebrity Masterchef, 5.4m tuning in. BBC1's new Saturday night show, Would I Lie to You?, scored 3.85m.

Top score on the minority channels went to The Apprentice You're Hired, which just scraped ahead of Big Brother – both had just over 4.2m. Deal had 2.85m, and 8 Out of 10 Cats had 2.2m on its return. There were season highs for QI (2.5m on Tuesday) and Old News (2.15m on Monday). Link had 2.1m, People's Quiz Wildcard 1.5m, and Let Me Entertain You lived up to its name for 1.45m.

On the cable channels, Britain's Got More Talent peaked at 800,000 on Wednesday night. E4 had three Big Brother shows – Little Brother had half a million on Wednesday, On the Couch 450,000 on Monday, and Big Mouth 420,000 on Tuesday. Jungle Run repeats on CITV attracted 240,000 on Thursday, the best recorded score of the year. QI on G2 had 212,000. More4 had 220,000 for a Deal repeat, but seems to have hit a place as something worth watching on wet and miserable Sundays – Scrapheap Challenge and Come Dine With Me both recorded 170,000 viewers. Challenge's top show was Saturday afternoon Bullseye, 68,000 tuned in.

The Gambling Commission says that it is still concerned that television quizzes are lotteries pretending not to be. It's not convinced that merely offering a free entry via the web is sufficient. The Commission, which begins its work in September, accepts that where entries are taken over a long time period, or where the target audience is likely to have web access, the free web entry is probably acceptable. But where time is of the essence, or where there's a need for immediate responses, there's an argument that a contest breaches the rules. Should any of the call-and-lose programmes be classed as a lottery, they would be subject to different regulation, and would have to give at least 20% of income to a charitable cause.

Next week's schedule includes a Face the Music special (BBC4, 8.30 tonight), a lyric game where the biggest challenge will be to watch JK and Joel for an hour (ITV, 8.30 Saturday), and the return of The Personality Test (Radio 4, 6.30 Wednesday). It doesn't include Tycoon, the ITV business programme, which has been shunted off to ITV4. We'll be reviewing that next week, and also intend to look at Jasper Carrott's balls.

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