Weaver's Week 2007-09-16

Weaver's Week Index


Changes in the air

The more things change, the more they change. For instance, ITV put out this press release on Wednesday morning. "ITV Play's call-TV programming will be phased out by the end of this year as negative publicity following compliance problems across the sector has seen call volumes drop to uneconomic levels." What does this mean?

Changes Are Afoot

Some of the most important game shows in Britain have re-launched recently, and we really should see what the changes are about.

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Who Wants to be a Millionaire (Two Way Traffic for ITV, since 18 August)

Millionaire, first broadcast nine years ago, has had only very minor tinkering since the first episodes. Fastest Finger First became a sequencing task, previous contestants were barred from re-applying, and that was about it. Now, Celador's formats division has been bought by Two Way Traffic, makers of ultra-cheap programme That's the Question, and there are some major changes.

The change most heralded by Chris Tarrant – he's still the show's host – is the new prize tree. The previous structure went from £500 to £64,000, then in exact fractions of a million, doubling at each step except one, and then the multiplier was 1.95. Under the new system, there are still ten questions from £1000 to the million. Instead of a simple double, the structure is now front-loaded: after £2000 comes £5000, a multiplication by 2.5. There's another leap from £20,000 to the second safe haven of £50,000. Then things slow down a little – there's just a 1.5 multiplier to £75,000, then doubling to £150,000, but then a multiplier of 1.66 to the quarter-million.

The net result is that there is precious little to gain from answering the "free shot" question immediately after the last safe point. Before, a contestant would double their money; now, the reward for a lucky guess is just 50% of their winnings so far. It is from a higher base, and the contestant still loses nothing if they're wrong, but it does alter the game somewhat. On the new prize tree, we're neutral, other than to silently wish that Chris wouldn't describe it as a "fast track to a million." It's still twelve questions from £500 to the jackpot, all we've lost are the llama-bating questions for the train fare home.

Far more important is the new music. If we're honest, it's a rave beat slapped over the original's bassline, and it sounds awful. Gone is the sense of tension, gone is the sense of occasion. If Millionaire had launched with these tunes in 1998, we would have become accustomed to them, but we know there is something better out there. It's almost enough for us to dig out our copy of the soundtrack CD and play it at just the right volume.

One change is in the background: after persistent rumours that money was changing hands for assistance in qualification, there are now to be auditions to appear on screen. This is probably a good thing, so long as it doesn't become the only way to get on the show – there is an attraction in people just ringing up and getting on.

There are other cosmetic changes – the questions now fly onto the screen, but appear in the ITV corporate Verdana typeface. The correct and incorrect answers appear to be lit up by real lightbulbs to the left of the answer, a very nifty effect. We're less keen on the opening titles, which remove the real stars of the show (the people) and replace them with imagery of the game. Overall, then, a bit of a curate's egg.

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Brain of Britain 2007 (Radio 4, 10 September)

Brain of Britain is on its third host in as many years. Though Robert Robinson had been in the chair since time immemorial, ill health forced him to leave the 2004 series half-way through, and he was ably replaced by Russell Davies. A similar problem has made him unavailable for this year's series, and with Mr. Davies also unavailable (he has many shows to make for BBC Four), the new host is Peter Snow. He was a perfectly competent host of Mastermind and Masterteam, and though he didn't put much of himself into the opening programme, we do not consider that a reflection on him. For all we know, the good bits were cut out of the edit.

Other changes are immediately apparent to the listener. Contestants now introduce themselves, giving their name and a brief biography that may or may not include their occupation. Mr. Snow generally refers to the contestants by their given name, rather than the traditional title and surname. There is no reason to make either of these changes, we cannot possibly believe that Mr. Snow is incapable of reading words off paper, and they do detract from the sense of occasion.

Less obviously, the contestants' biographies give no clue to their geographical location. Ever since it began, Brain of Britain has followed a strict geographical format: one finalist will come from London and the Home Counties, one will come from southern England or the Midlands, one will come from the rest of the country, and there will be a repechage amongst high-scoring losers for the final place. Now, there is no such geographical division. We can see some merit in this move, for while the contestants correctly reflected the weight of applicants, it's dispiriting to recall that the third semi-final could feature Daphne Fowler, Anthony Martin, Walter Dobson, and Bill McKaig, to name just four quizzers from the west and north. We would consider geographical seeding for the first round, giving each region its week in the sun, but make the later stages open.

Most tellingly, though, the standard of questions appears to have fallen. Previously, the questions were set by just one person – first Ian Gillies, more recently Kevin Ashman, both champions of the once-a-decade Top Brain competition. Not only would he set the questions, but he would be in the studio to adjudicate on dubious answers. Who better to decide on what's right than the man who wrote the question? Now, budget cuts ensure that a panel sets the questions, and the quality has suffered.

No longer is there an easy start, allowing both contestants and audience to warm up their minds, and an easy finish, allowing the listener to leave the show remembering that they got something right. The questions feel messy. Indeed, the first edition of the quiz felt all over the place, but we will put that down to first-edition nerves and trust that it improves over the coming weeks.

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Deal or No Deal (C4, since 13 August)

For its third transmission series, Deal or No Deal has had a slightly different music package, and some garish new lights. The other change, following 0898gate, and a critical report from one of the regulators, is that the prize for the viewer competition is now revealed at the end of part one. It was filmed at the end of the game, and counts as a bit of a spoiler. The contest is now a Legalised Telephone, Web, And Postcard Lottery, for entries by Royal Mail are now being accepted.

None of these changes have altered the game one little bit, it's still Noel Edmonds giving a 45-minute illustrated lecture on the merits of gambling, even when the illustrations completely contradict his message. Some say that he's only coming out with that spiel because the producers are telling him to; others suggest that he is a grown man, with a mind of his own. Some would argue that he's only wearing those garish shirts in a tribute to the previous holder of the 4.15 slot, Richard Whiteley; others suggest that we've completely made that up.


Heat 10

No change in the rules here: black chair, two minutes, you know the drill. It all has the inevitability of John Humphrys' call for the BBC to concentrate on its strengths: the radio Today programme, serialisations of Lost for Words, and this programme. One clear option for cuts, according to this man, is Newsnight.

Chris Braithwaite kicks us off with the University Challenge Boat Race. The event has never taken place on a Tuesday, we learn, but has been held on each other day of the week. It's not quite a perfect round, but 15 (1) puts him in the bow seat. Or wherever it is that leads. Our knowledge of rowing is limited to "in, out".

Ed Isaacs discusses the Novels of Evelyn Waugh. It's a very wide subject, and the questions are very precise, ensuring the final score is 4 (5).

Simon Gay has a subject that we expect has been done before, but we're dashed if we can find it: English Coronations since 1066. Psalms, hymns, and the king who had a coronation during dinner. These monarchs are a rum bunch. 12 (3).

Peter Gaskell will tell us about the Life and Music of Bob Marley. It's perhaps not the smallest subject of the night, but it's certainly the most tightly-focussed, and we suspect the easiest to research. The contender whizzes through his questions, finishing on 17 (3).

Mr. Isaacs discusses his job, in housing regeneration, rather than his subject, and finishes on 14 (8). Mr. Gay is the lay vicar of Westminster Abbey, and is technically in the direct employ of the present monarch. And had some local knowledge while researching his round. His final score is 20 (7).

Mr. Braithwaite is studying for a PhD, on how rockfalls work. To study, he's had to blow up lots of rocks. He finishes on 22 (4).

Mr. Gaskell needs just six to win. He appeared on the show on 14 August last year, and while we accept that the lack of a repechage means that high-scoring losers are disadvantaged, they might at least wait a series. He has a lot of passes – six altogether, finishing on 24 (9), but it's just enough.

University Challenge

First round, 10/14: Durham v St Edmund Hall Oxford

Back in the days when Robert Robinson was just beginning his second millennium hosting Brain of Britain, the concept of the "university" began to take shape as a place where people might rehearse for his annual visits. In Oxford, one was founded at St Edmund Hall; in the North, one was founded at Durham. Many hundreds of years later, the two institutions come to joust in what we really should be calling Mediaeval University Challenge. Except that jousting is left to the hosts: Jeremy Paxman suggests that the BBC's management should make some difficult decisions about what their services should be doing, and presenters need not defend their own shows.

We're not entirely sure why they don't just seed Durham through to the quarter-finals, the side always makes it, and it saves our keyboard a few thousand presses. Anyway, the opening questions go at quite a clip, there's not too much conferring by either side. The first picture starter may be the easiest in history: Name That Railway Symbol. Even the readers of the email edition will be able to name the symbol pictured. Durham has a handy lead, 85-30.

St Edmund Hall cut into it, knowing all about internet slash fiction. They'll be seeing "The Lion King" in a new light at this rate. We'll wash our minds out with this question, read by Thumper at a rate of knots.

Q: Bearing, dog-leg, dibber, and e-punching are all terms used in which outdoor pursuit...
Durham, Rob Peck: Golf.
Q: ... the first competitive event of which took place in Norway in 1897, over a course length of 19.5km, with an inaugural ski version taking place two years later?

During that question, we completed at least two orienteering legs. Though they have little luck on the bonuses, St Edmund Hall is staying in contention here, chipping away at the gap, eventually bringing themselves to parity just before the audio round. Knowledge of the middle name of Iain Banks puts the Oxford side ahead, and Durham's passage to the next round is not looking quite so assured. The audio round is Name That Blues Pianist, which evades both sides. St Edmund Hall has a 90-80 lead.

Matthew Pinsent turned up in Mastermind, as an answer to a question about the Boat Race. Here, it's in the context of his Olympic medals. Durham takes their second missignal of the night, St Edmund Hall finally gets some luck with the bonuses, and is over 50 points ahead. It doesn't last; Durham gets a starter on Name That Battle, but still trails 140-105.

Cobwebs in the repechage standings, now unchanged for six weeks:

  • Lancaster 185
  • Liverpool 165
  • Magdalen Oxford 160
  • Birmingham 145

Durham needs 40 points to enter into repechage contention, but St Edmund monopolises the buzzer questions, and picking up a missignal doesn't help. It looks as though there was a bit of an edit when St Edmund Hall got the gospel of Judas Iscariot, but it doesn't affect the result of the game. Nothing much will: though Thumper encourages Durham to guess, the Oxford side is red-hot on the buzzers, and runs out winners by 255-120.

The pieces of paper you can see floating outside the window are the remnants of the form book. Durham made 13/21 bonuses, but picked up three missignals; St Edmund Hall had 17/48 bonuses and no incorrect interruptions. Helen Thomas was best buzzer for Durham, four starters; Ian Lyons made eight for St Edmund Hall.

Next match: Jesus Cambridge v Exeter

This Week And Next

Is it autumn already? One of the tabloid newspapers claims that Desso Connor wants to leave Countdown so he can spend more time with his family. Should the show have guest presenters each year, like a slightly more sedate Angus Deayton? Should they employ someone completely unknown? Just give the job to Simon Groom and be done with it?

Last week, there were claims in the tabloid press that The X Factor was confecting bands out of rejected solo singers. In July, ITV host Michael Grade said that his channel had to be whiter than white. "If ... any production company is found to have set out to lie and deceive viewers, we can't do business with them. It's as simple as that."

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Nice to see that Mr. Greed is prepared to put his schedule where his mouth is. In a speech this week, he announced his desire for ITV to be the one-stop shop for free entertainment, as opposed to the current situation where it's a stop for one entertaining programme. He didn't announce that ITV was giving up on its regional news, that information sneaked out through the back door. Nor did he explain the meaning of that ITV statement we quoted at the start. But we've worked it out: "No-one is calling our overnight call-and-lose show, so we're going to kill it." An excellent decision, Mr. Greed. Central Jobfinder is much more appealing.

BARB viewing figures show the commercial sector ruled the roost in the week to 2 September, X Factor topped ITV's list with 9.2 million viewers, and Big Brother led Channel 4's with 5.6m. It was, however, beaten by the rejuvenated Millionaire, 5.95m tuning in. The Eurovision Dance Contest had 4m viewers, and ranked ahead of Test The Nation's results show, seen by 3.55m.

University Challenge and Mock the Week both had 2.5m viewers for BBC2, and both beat the much-hyped Heroes. Wednesday's first episode of The Restaurant had 2.05m, Eggheads had 1.85m, Identity 1.75m. Mastermind suffered from being on against the How Good Are You At Doing IQ Tests test, down to 1.5m, and Ready Steady Cook is ticking over on 1.4m. On Channel 4, Deal or No Deal had 1.95m, BBLB 1.6m. And hello to Channel 5, who deigned to put on a game show, and Britain's Strongest Man was rewarded with 1.15m viewers.

On the digital tier, Xtra Factor (1.115m) easily beat analysis of the Big Brother final (980,000). Come Dine With Me had its largest viewing figure of the year on More4, 295,000 tuning in. Other figures: X Factor repeat 545,000, BBLB 530,000, Raven The Secret Temple 190,000. Challenge's top show was Tuesday Night Millionaire (115,000) and the number of Deal or No Deal episodes in the More4 top ten: nil.

End of the current series of Hell's Kitchen (ITV Monday 9pm), but new runs of Never Mind the Buzzcocks (BBC2, Wednesday 10pm) and QI (BBC2, Friday 10pm). And Vernon Kay goes in search of The World's Greatest Elvis (BBC1, Saturday 6.55).

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