Weaver's Week 2008-05-11

Weaver's Week Index

"Just print the money and drop it out of helicopters."

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Beat The Star With Vernon Kay

Diverse / Gallowgate for ITV, Sunday evenings

The strangest bit of the show happens immediately before the opening credits, when a stuffed toy dog rips off the catchphrase of former British prime minister John Major. Bizarre? Oh yes!

Anyway, there are clips of what's coming up on the show, and a brief animated title sequence before Vernon Kay comes down a set of steps, clutching a briefcase containing £50,000 in used £50 notes.

What's the object of the show? The title is a bit of a giveaway: a member of the public (introduced in the almost inevitable two-minute film) will challenge one star (introduced in another almost inevitable two-minute film) to a series of physical, mental, and psychological tests. The first challenge is worth one point, the second two points, and so on until the seventh challenge is worth seven points. Quickly to the maths-mobile, there are 1+2+3+4+5+6+7 = 28 points to be scored in the game. Half of that is 28/2 = 14 points, so anyone scoring 15 points or more will be in a winning position.

All of which begs the question: why are people cheering so loudly at a policeman and a boxer hammering nails into a plank of wood, as happened on the first episode? Competitive carpentry, that's quite clearly the future of ITV's prime-time schedule, no doubt soon to be featuring Phil Tufnell and Tamara Palmer-Tompkinson fixing up a joist. That's *joist*.

Some events feature a commentary from TV's most famous commentator, David Goldstrom, some events are refereed by Dermot Gallagher, a former football ref, and Jonathan Clays gets a credit as voice-over, something we completely missed in the show. Some events are discussed by Vernon Kay; indeed, some games allow commentary by the competitors while they're competing, perhaps an idea they've gained from the 20/XX cricket tournaments. One idea they've not taken from the new all-action cricket is to have people standing around on top of a telegraph pole for minutes at a time.

The challenger's motivation is simple: £50,000 if they can score more points in the show. The star's motivation is slightly more tricky; they'll lose some pride if they lose (and more if they lose badly), but the prize money isn't donated to a charity of their choice. No, it's going to a roll-over on the next show. Nor is it clear what happens in the event of a tie. If one contestant does wrap the contest up early, we'll see longer cuts of the events without changing the length of the show – a four-minute game standing about on a telegraph pole was cut in half for transmission one week, but the same game in a blow-out contest would run in full.

This is not a format created by ITV. No, it's an import from Germany, where people will happily spend their evenings watching Stefan Raab pit his wits against members of the public in a series of games on live television. The UK edition has been filmed at the Brainpool TV studios in Germany, and attentive viewers might see evidence in the sandpit outside the studio where at least one game's played each week. That Germanic influence shows in the workmanlike attention to detail, little things like the laser display scoreboard showing the current game, or the lightweight ear-mounted microphones that might be seen in telephone switchboards, or the richly decorated set. It's not a British set design, and the show profits by not assuming Britain has all the answers. We do have some contributions: the red-versus-blue is a clear nod to Ant versus Dec, itself a nod to the gents' production company Gallowgate. We also note that the show's executive producer Ed Forsdick filled a similar role on their Takeaway and Gameshow Marathon series.

Some of the games are fairly simple tests – there's no particular novelty in driving a car round a track, or playing badminton, and a penalty shoot-out is never going to pass as novelty. Other challenges are so inventive as to be ludicrous: milking a cow, or chopping a sausage into larger pieces than your opponent. In between are those things that we might all have liked to do, like play football in cars, or try to swing a swing over the top. It's these bizarre games, in the spirit of Noel's House Party or the more outrageous stuff on Takeaway, that make the show an entertaining view.

Almost inevitably, there's more outrage with an 0898 call-and-lose competition. This one's particularly obnoxious, because it is completely inaccessible to viewers who cannot see the screen.

So far, all we've had on the series are male sports stars, which makes for slightly samey shows. We're promised at least one female sports star, with the possibility of showbiz personalities to follow later. Overall, though, this is an entirely watchable show, a good if lightweight entertainment for a Saturday night. And, yes, Vernon Kay is good in this show, but then we reckon he's at least tolerable in everything he does.

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How Much Money Do We Have To Print And Drop Out Of Helicopters?

As foreshadowed last week, OFCOM has published its report into ITV's call-and-lose deceptions. What are the scores on the doors?

For Antan Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway Your Money: £3 million.

For Antan Dec's Gameshow Marathon: £1.2 million.

For Soapstar Superstar: £1.2 million.

For not blocking out call-in lines on ITV2+1: £275,000.

Until this report, the record fine handed out by OFCOM was £2 million, for GMTV's 0898-gate shenanigans, and for Carlton TV airing a completely made-up documentary.

The list of problems on Takeaway was long. Winners were selected based on their geographical location, both to match the pre-determined location of the Jiggy Bank, but also to provide a good spread on the viewer phone-in Grab the Ads segment. On one occasion, the producers picked the Jiggy Bank winner purely on their belief that it would make the best television. There was also selection on the grounds of how people would come over on screen in these segments and the studio-based Win the Ads.

In the report, it emerged that the original plan for the Jiggy Bank was to mount it on the back of a lorry, display a number, and only those people who saw the lorry could enter. Only late in the planning stage was the plan changed to an 0898 contest. Though OFCOM didn't say so, we have a sneaking suspicion that the aim was to increase the number of people tempted to call the line: a number shown for a few seconds on national television is going to be seen by a lot more people than will see a ruddy big pig coming down people's streets.

The mixed entry for Grab and Win The Ads caused confusion to viewers, with winners to the telephone competition chosen before lines closed (indeed, it was never clear when the lines closed) and entrants for both segments selected on editorial grounds, including liveliness. Many people have wondered why they bothered selecting people for these bits, because they're the most boring part of the show. The Jiggy Bank is fun perhaps twice, but was at least gone in 30 seconds, but the two ad break competitions dragged on and on, ensuring that every show ended on a bit we could safely zap past en route to Duel.

For Gameshow Marathon, winners were selected on how ecstatic they would appear on screen, and in part from where they live. The producers had remarkable difficulty in confirming that SMS entrants to the competition were properly considered. Again, the second most annoying aspect of this series was the repeated calls to call. (The most annoying, as we remarked at the time, was the gratuitous sponsorship, a matter that OFCOM has seen fit to endorse.)

For Soapstar Superstar, viewers' voting for songs was regularly and repeatedly over-ridden by the production staff, citing health concerns or creative ballads. There was also an almighty cockup, where the people finishing 7th and 8th out of 10 were transposed into the bottom two places, and lines closed some minutes before the on-screen announcement.

Finally, the fundamental problem at ITV2+1 was that the "lines closed" caption had to be manually inserted by hand. It wasn't automated, even though the main re-purposing was automatically generated.

OFCOM went to the unprecedented step of issuing a special Broadcast Bulletin so that it might discuss other 0898-ITV failures. There were allegations of malpractice in regional 0898 promotions, along the lines of discounting telephone or SMS entries, or ensuring regional balance, or that there weren't repeat winners. Full and accurate records for these competitions were not kept centrally, and had since been discarded by the regional stations. Though this doesn't prove guilt, it doesn't prove innocence, as the records to make a proper decision were not available.

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Three specific games on ITV Play were criticised: in one, the person displayed on screen as the winner, and believed a cash prize was due, won nothing more than a chance to participate in a winner's draw. A game looking for an animal in a grid of letters sought "TUNA" from a selection of letters without a "U". And another, seeking words found within "ENCHANTED" allowed "HATCH", even though callers could only use each letter once.

On I'm a Celeb, vote lines closed three-and-a-quarter minutes earlier than they should, because the show was over-running terribly, and no-one had thought to change the closing time. And an overnight repeat of People's Court invited viewers to send an SMS in. Lines closed on the original broadcast. In 2005.

There were, however, no breaches of the regulations when SMS votes were ignored on The X Factor in 2005 and 2006, for these were failings by telecoms providers and not the broadcaster. Nor was there any irregularity in the final of the 2007 series, and anyone who says otherwise is almost as wrong as the commissioning editor.

More general points come out of these reports. OFCOM said,

"Successive Takeaway production teams had repeatedly deliberately disregarded or failed to consider the requirements of the relevant Codes and their own terms and conditions, for three different competitions, over a period of some four years. OFCOM was extremely concerned by the duration and repeated nature of the breaches, which had resulted in significant harm involving a substantial audience. Substantial numbers of entrants to the Jiggy Bank, Grab the Ads, and Win the Ads competitions stood little or no chance of winning because the production team did not consider them to be 'bubbly' enough or because they lived in the wrong geographical area."

Similar criticism was directed at the other producers: the plans had been instigated by people who had left the company, proper records were not kept, and it's the fault of no-one in particular. We should note that no named person has lost their job over any of these matters. This isn't true for Peter Fincham, Richard Marson, or Ric Blaxill, all forced out of jobs at the BBC for far lesser offences. There were harsh words for the chain of command at ITV.

"All of the 'power' regarding editorial decisions, and any decision to refer a particular issue to ITV's compliance team, had rested with the Executive producer of Takeaway, with no management oversight or scrutiny or audit of his actions. ITV's compliance team was reactive, rather than proactive, so unless the Executive Producer referred a matter to them or they received a viewer complaint, they had no awareness of any issues that had arisen. This wholly inadequate approach was not fit for purpose. Effectively, how the viewer interactive competitions were conducted was entirely within the control of the Executive Producer, who was 'omnipotent'. He was also responsible for all editorial decisions made in relation to the programme, for delivering audience ratings and for bringing the series in on budget. There had been no, or minimal, checks or balances on his absolute 'editorial sovereignty'."

Indeed, ITV's submission explicitly said that the Takeaway production staff believed they were being honest, and there was no mechanism to question their decision. This led to utter arrogance on Soapstar Superstar in relation to taking results early on the opening show.

"One of the Executive Producers had said that, once the decision had been taken to finalise the vote early, (s)he would not have listened to anyone informing him/ her that the decision was incorrect. More junior members of the production team said that they had told the Producers at the time that it was too early to finalise the vote, but they had been overruled. A junior member of the production team had reported the matter to a senior manager within ITV's interactive team who, in turn, informed the Partnership Director & Controller of ITV Interactive that an 'issue' had arisen, but that it had been 'dealt with'. The fact that an 'issue' had arisen had then been raised at an ITV consumer team meeting, but no further actions had been taken at the time."

In simple terms, senior management should have known. There were ample opportunities for them to be told – the source on Soapstar Superstar, the blatant fixing of a Jiggy Bank episode. And it appears negligent in the extreme for there to be no proper controls – no-one at ITV seemed bothered to actually ensure that the shows were operating in a legal, decent, honest, or truthful manner. These systemic failures must have come right from the top. The company's new chairman, Michael Grade, can make as many soothing words as he likes, and the former Head of ITV Compliance left the company at the end of last year, but he cannot undo the damage to ITV's probity from this litany of nonsense. ITV has been fined five and a bit million quid, but its viewers were cheated out of £7.8 million. Charities have profited, but the problem need never have arisen. For now, the final word goes to OFCOM, this time from the Soapstar Superstar report:

"For the programme makers to knowingly ignore the audience's votes in favour of their own decisions was inexcusable. This showed their total contempt for ITV's audience. Their actions were not only in breach of the Code and their own voting guidelines, but were also absolutely reprehensible."

But there's more to come: OFCOM is investigating the British Comedy Awards on ITV, the Secret Sound competition broadcast on a number of radio stations, and a number of programmes on BBC radio and television. Like Simon Cowell, 0898-gate isn't going to go away... We also note that ITV and the Serious Fraud Office have headquarters in adjacent buildings.

This Week And Next

In another good day to bury bad news, ITV let slip that the People's Choice award at the 2005 Comedy Awards was given to Antan Dec, even though the most votes were cast for Catherine Tate. There's some long and rather tedious tale that we don't pretend to understand involving Robbie Williams. The 0898 ITV angle is that voting continued right through the News at Ten Thirty, even though the award was presented at 10.40 and shown later. Will we be able to get away with calling the channel LITV (as in, lie-tv)? No? Thought not.

The BBC has also confessed to opening the voting lines for Making Your Mind Up 2007 some moments after Fearne and Wogan said lines were open. It's not known if this affected the result, but it should have done. The corporation has also found £106,000 down the back of the sofa, stashed there from various 0898 competitions run during charity promotions. New director general Mark Thompson will deliver a suitably grovelling apology on television, something that Michael Grade at ITV isn't doing.

There are those who say that all voting at the Eurovision Song Contest is political. Most of those who subscribe to the view would say that the problem only began in the late 1990s. Montse Fernandez Vila has claimed that it's been endemic since the 1960s. According to her documentary, which aired on Spanish television last weekend, Spain rather cheated. By buying television shows they never intended to show, the country bought, bribed, and cajoled enough people into making Massiel's "La la la" the winner of the 1968 contest, beating Cliff Richard's "Congratulations". Executives of TVE travelled around Europe, promising to buy lots and lots of programmes if only they would vote for Spain. TVE has not commented on these claims, but Mr. Sir Cliff Richard said that he would rather like to be judged the winner of the contest.

Let's be honest, anything would have been better than a song that goes "La la la." Apart from the one that goes "dinge dange donge". Or the one that goes "ay-yai-yai-yai", or the one with the 150 Irish people trying to put out a cigarette, or the one that goes "bye bye baby" in every key but the right one...

Ratings to 27 April showed Britain's Got Talent still retained the confidence of the viewing public, 9.85m were ritually abused by Simon Cowell. The Apprentice continues to close the gap, 7.85m were ritually abused by Alan Sugar. I'd Do Anything (5.9m) beat All Star Mr and Mrs (5.45m), Beat the Star (5.2m), HIGNFY (4.95m) and One Versus One Hundred (4.55m). Adrian Chiles (3m) was given a close run for the minor channels by the Ministry of Justice (2.95m) as The Apprentice just beat University Challenge. QI (2.65m) was similarly hounded by Great British Menu (2.6m), and both beat Come Dine With Me.

On the digital channels, Britain's Got Talent reached a new peak, 1.185m saw ITV2's Sunday night repeat, but what's happened to Pop Idle US? Just 565,000 tuned in to the final five, showing that the Cowell bubble may have burst. Come Dine With Me had 640,000 on More4. Two shows debuted: Dancing with the Stars broke into UK Gold's top ten with 135,000, and Britain's Next Top Model began on Living, seen by 355,000.

Coming up this week, it's the BBC Young Musician Final (BBC2, 6pm tonight; Radio 3, 7pm Monday) and Eurovision Young Musicians (BBC4, 8pm Friday), the return of Fort Boyard (TV5, 5.29pm Wednesday), and An Audience Without Jeremy Beadle (ITV, 9.30 Friday).

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