Weaver's Week 2008-08-03

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In a packed Week this week, we've got a review of The Superteams, thoughts on the latest Countdown spat, a gripping University Challenge match, details of some large fines for the BBC, two pork pies, and a strawberry yoghurt.


The Superstars

IMG for Channel 5, 8pm Friday, and repeated throughout the week.

Superstars? The Superteams? Ah, let's run with what they've got on screen, it'll do for our purposes.

After an abortive return earlier in the decade, Superstars has returned again. It's on a new channel, and has new hosts. Goodbye to the commercial-free BBC1, hello to Channel 5 with the stain in the corner of the screen. Farewell to The Ironic Johnny Vaughan and Treasure Hunt's Suzi Perry, and hello to Jim Rosenthal and Sharron Davies. Jim was one of the voices of ITV sport until fairly recently, while Sharron was a swimmer, Gladiator, and host of The Big Breakfast.

It's been said that the problem with the 2003 revival was that it was too glossy. The 2008 version goes some way to rectifying this, swapping the sunny climes of southern Spain for the glorious city of Crawley. It's unfair to pick on any London commuter town as being particularly unglamorous, but Crawley really sounds like a bit of a comedown from the last host city. On the other hand, it's a darn site more glamorous than Milton Keynes, and allows many of the competitors to return to their homes during the week of filming. (Yes, all the episodes were filmed during one week, and one on the same day as the FA Cup final.)

The basic theory here is that sixteen sports people will be divided into four teams of four. Their leaders are Steve Redgrave (rower), Roger Black (giggler), Kelly Holmes (Gladiators drop-out), and Mike Catt (chases after string beans). We note that these leaders are always referred to with the "Sir", "Dame", and "MBE" they've been awarded for their efforts, just in case we might happen to confuse them with the guy who works down the chip shop.

The first show was a bit of a mess, and began with the captains climbing a wall. The producers can put as many lightweight cameras on helmets as they like, climbing walls doesn't make for good television unless there's someone coming up from behind. Anyway, the first captain to climb to the top got first pick from the twelve sports people, the next got to pick from the remainder, and the other two chose in rotation. The people who had just been chosen then went on to do the famous gym tests, with the best performance earning first pick for their captain. The second choices did some diving, and the remaining people were picked. Between all this were some irritatingly naff descriptions of the competitors. Never mind the personalities, give us some proper sportspeople action. Though it wasn't spelled out on screen, the teams had to contain three men and one lady competitor.

There was a tug-o-war to decide who had choice of opponent. Though it didn't become clear for some weeks, this mattered because not all the competitions were the same. Some weeks, for instance, had sprinting and long jumps, while other weeks had middle-distance races and track cycling. The winning captain was able to arrange the schedule so he played other teams in events he thought would be to his advantage.

Only in the second show did we get to see the show's abilities. And, to be fair, it's an entertaining – if undemanding – hour of television. Every captain must nominate two or three team-members for a particular discipline, and in some arenas – such as the gym or the athletics track – there are two events happening at once, with captains obliged to split their team into two for (say) the squats and dips, and two for the cycling and rowing tests.

Scoring is moderately complex: three-person events are rewarded 8-6-4-3-2-1, two-person tests award 5-3-2-1. Occasional four-person events score 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1, a system familiar to Formula One fans; there's also been a relay race with points to the winning team only. Every point counts, for the scores will be cumulative across the series.

Many of the traditions of Superstars have been maintained: there are still sportspeople making spectacularly inept attempts to master sports other than their own. If there's perhaps less of a competitive spirit in this event than we remember from the revival, it could be because it's a team event, and they tend to have looser focus than the individual show. The producers still pull the competitors out of the events taking place in their home sport; however, the captains have one wild-card to play during the entire series, allowing them to play one person at home.

Image:Superstars kevinfallsoffbike.jpg Could this have influenced the choice of commentator?

The greatest tradition of all is still present: the theme, "Heavy Action". And we're pleased to see one of the most British of all sports commentators has leant his voice to the show: Phil Liggett has been the voice of the Tour de France on Channel 4 and all four ITV digital channels over the years, and now brings his statements of the blindingly obvious to a new arena. Though a less obvious choice than Paul Dickinson (Superstars 2003-5) or David Goldstrom (just about everything else), Liggett fits well with the feel of the show.

Most of the events are topped and tailed by Rosenthal, with Davies conducting the interviews with the competitors. If anything, the show is a little overstaffed: Liggett, referee Graham Poll, and one or other of the presenters could hold the show together quite adequately. If we're moaning at the script, we should point out that Rosenthal's words rather over-egged what appeared to us to be a simple misunderstanding in one of the rock climbs: inferring that someone deliberately cheated is a bit rich.

The real stars, though, are the sixteen competitors. Footballers Lee Sharpe and Roberto Di Matteo, cricketer Graham Thorpe, athlete Iwan Thomas, swimmers Mark Foster and Karen Pickering, boxer Jane Couch, cyclist Chris Boardman, skier Alain Baxter and bob skeleton-rider Shelley Rudman are all present. Rugbyman Austin Healey pulled out of the recording late in the day, with Martin Offiah (also rugby) and sprinter Jason Gardener coming in at short notice. It's worth noting that most of these competitors have recently retired from their sport.

In the interests of full disclosure, we should point out that the show is made by IMG, a wholly-owned subsidiary of IMG Talent, which manages many famous sportspeople. We've not been able to review a client list to determine which competitors are represented by IMG.

Any potential conflicts of interest apart, Superstars remains good, clean, honest fun. It harks back to a halcyon era, when men were real men, sport was real sport, and the strongest drug anyone took was a nip of brandy after the event. Of course, sport was never quite like that, and measuring Superstars against the myth is bound to be a bit of a disappointment. After the first show, though, this has turned out to be a thoroughly fun series.

Countdown Update

Or: How Journalism Works

Though there's been no on-screen action this week, there's been enough muck thrown about in the papers to compost the entirety of Lancashire for a month. Des O'Connor announced his retirement from Countdown, swiftly followed by the exit of Carol Vorderman. While Mr. O'Connor went quietly, Ms Vorderman began a campaign against her soon-to-be-former bosses.

The news went public at 6pm on Friday night, a time that would ensure it could be the splash for the first editions of the Saturday papers. By Saturday afternoon, newspapers were saying that she'd been asked to take a 90% pay cut, reducing her salary from £1 million to £100,000 a year. This would amount to half of the budget cuts that were demanded by Channel 4, who want to reduce the costs of Countdown from £6 million to £4 million a year.

The briefings from the Vorderman camp turned both personal and emotive, claiming that "an un-named Channel 4 executive" had intimated that Countdown could survive without her, just as it survived without Richard Whiteley. The person at Channel 4 wasn't named on Sunday, but "friends of Carol Vorderman" (sometimes a code for the star, or her agent) supplied a name to the media on Monday. She also used the furore to claim that she, personally, had stopped the producers from inserting an 0898 call-and-lose contest into Countdown. Such a fine example of public spirit, ensuring that people on limited incomes don't take gambles they can't afford.

Other people were drafted in, all taking Vorderman's side. Marcel Stellman, who owns the English-language format, muttered that he could withdraw the show's license. Dictionary Corner regulars Jennie Bond and Esther Rantzen weighed in with shock and outrage, as did Richard Whiteley's companion Kathryn Apanowicz. The legendary Rick Wakeman used a metaphor close to our heart, saying "People can make themselves irreplaceable like Bruce Forsyth on The Generation Game." Would that be the show starring the camp lad from Nuneaton and his straight woman?

We all know that Carol Vorderman is a very astute person, and she will have accumulated a lot of media smarts over her 26 years on television. Her timing was spot-on: a hot weekend when half the country's on holiday, sparking a five-day wonder that began one week-end, ran into the first half of the next, and fizzled out in time for the combined distractions of the Olympics and yet another plot against the prime minister.

We also know that Channel 4 isn't all that good at defending itself when attacked – witness the news blackout from the corporation during last year's Celebrity Big Brother rumpus, when the channel's chairman waited almost a week to brief the press. Channel 4 and its contractors ITV Productions have again played a poor hand – C4 issued a flat refusal to discuss its presenters' salaries, and ITV Productions said only that it believed it, and not M. Stellman, owned the show's format for the UK.

While large enough to warrant a piece in this column, we refuse to be dragged into the drama that the Vorderman team has expertly created. Contract negotiations have broken down, the Vord will no longer be at the board. It's all very sad, but let's keep a sense of proportion and try to ask the difficult question: why Channel 4 wants to cut the budget by £2 million.

Is it a reaction to the expected downturn in advertising when Richard and Judy leave the channel next month? Is it recognition that Countdown doesn't attract the 3 million viewers it did when it was on at 4.30, and doesn't justify all the expense lavished on it recently? Could the cuts stem from a general downturn in the advertising market, owing to the slowdown in the British economy? Is that slowdown due to a lack of confidence, in turn stemming from the extension of credit to people who would not be granted it by a prudent lender? And who was it that advertised credit to people who would not receive money from prudent lenders?

If our theory is correct, the heat has now gone out of this story, and we might move on to thinking about the replacements for Des and Carol. More on this in a few weeks.

The Round Britain Quiz-style question this week: A replacement for a Gopher, "I am but a humble spear carrier", Mister global business, "Move over, Darling", and Booker 1989. Tim and Lisa wanted more. What game show are we talking about? Answer later.

University Challenge

Match 4: Surrey v Warwick

Thunder and lightning greet the teams this week. It's not a reflection on the quality of competition, but a note that the 100-hour English summer ends now.

No word of the week, this week's starting starter is a Brief History of the Cheque. It's answered by Warwick, a university that was founded in 1965 from foundations of red tape. The university won UC two years ago, and was a quarter-finalist last year. Alumni include Jennie Bond and Simon Mayo, and this week's team includes Andrew Marr. Not the bloke whose Sunday morning show we always miss for reasons we'll discuss next week, but a young literature student.

John Cage gives Surrey their first starter for ten. The institution was founded as Battersea Poly in the 1890s, and moved to Guildford in 1968, two years after becoming a university. The most famous living alumnus, apparently, is Jeremy Kyle, of whom we have never heard. Do we win? If we don't, then Warwick should, for being able to remember Kim Campbell, former Canadian prime minister but best known in these parts for her appearance on the reality series Who Wants To Be A Premiere? The first visual round is maps of motor racing circuits, and Warwick has a slim lead, 50-45.

It won't last beyond the next starter, and after a shaky start, Surrey is beginning to establish a commanding score by virtue of buzzing a lot, getting the occasional bonus right, and those very slowly. Words of the Week crop up as a set of bonuses in which Thumper defines two-letter words, and the team must give the US state for which it's the postal abbreviation. It's another game the producers could sell to Will Shortz for his Sunday lunchtime quiz on WRN. The audio round is on winners of John Peel's Festive Fifty, and Surrey's lead has risen to 115-60.

Thumper is right to sigh, loudly, when someone from Warwick suggests that the Queen's Speech (a) lasts at least 45 minutes and (b) could be delivered by Disraeli and Gladstone. That's the budget, of course. Warwick has been quietly pulling back into the game, and takes the lead, helped a little by some missignals by the Surrey side. The second visual round is on pictures stolen from Zurich in February. And if you've seen any of these pictures recently, do call Crimestoppers. Warwick's lead is 135-105.

Surrey pulls back with bonuses on the circulation, and a starter on the Spanish flu. We know which side to ask if we get a disease, then. Warwick re-takes the lead with knowledge of supporting characters in Macbeth, but don't recall that the material duffel comes from Belgium. That's the sort of thing that wins a million quid, as Judith Keppel found out. Surrey appears to know nothing of the Battle of Sedan, cheers will not be coming from that city. They do know about penguins, but Warwick has the player better at doing mental arithmetic. Quick, someone sign him up for Countdown!

With Warwick's lead standing at five points, Surrey missignals on a confusing starter, Warwick works it out, and takes a 30-point lead. Even though Young Mister Tilling is shouting at the top of his voice, as Surrey takes a starter, the victory is assured. Warwick's final winning score is 185-170.

The repechage board is now full:
  • Surrey 170
  • Hull 140
  • Royal Vet College 95
  • Durham 95

"More will mean worse," said Kingsley Amis about 1960s universities, quoted by Thumper in this week's introduction. Not on this basis they won't; Surrey will surely be back in the repechage, and Warwick has – rightly – won its place in the second round.

Best on the buzzers for Surrey was Martyn Bignold, with five starters. The team was correct in 14/34 bonuses, but picked up four penalties for missignals. Warwick's best buzzer was Srdjan Garcevic, who answered six starters correctly; the team was right on 18/30 bonuses, and incurred one missignal.

Next match: Queen's Cambridge v St George's London

This Week And Next

Still to come is an exhaustive list of the BBC's crimes, or at least those involving faked competition winners for which it has been fined by OFCOM. First, everything else.

We regret to report the death of Robert Crampsey. Best known as a sports journalist and broadcaster, Bob was the resident human encyclopaedia on Radio Scotland's Sportsound programme for many years. National recognition came in 1965, when he won the Home Service's What Do You Know? competition; he would make the semi-finals of Mastermind a decade later.

Let us welcome our new television overlords, the competitors of Celebrity Masterchef, who peaked on Thursday with 5.25m viewers. Tess Daly's This Time Tomorrow comes in with a million fewer viewers, but it's still enough for second place, and Last Choir Standing takes third on 4.1m. Big Brother (3.7m) just beat Who Dares Sings! (3.65m). There are seasons' bests for 8 Out of 10 Cats (3.25m), Personal Services Required (1.7m), and Des Lynam's Sport Mastermind (1.45m). Superstars was only just behind on 1.3m.

Come Dine With Me remains the most popular programme on the digital channels, 750,000 seeing the Sunday final. America's Got Talent (560,000) and QI (470,000) rounded out the customary top three, barely threatened by Living's new show Diet on the Dancefloor (200,000).

The Round Britain Quiz-style answer: "A replacement for a Gopher" is Darren Day, who replaced Phillip Schofield in the stage production of Joseph. "I am but a humble spear carrier" was the traditional opening statement of Robin Day on election night programmes. "Mister global business" is Peter Day, host of the BBC radio programme Global Business. "Move over, Darling" was a hit for Doris Day. "Booker 1989" refers to The Remains of the Day, winner of that year's literature prize. That makes five Days, and should lead you to the five-day-wonder game show "quinque dies", or Qd, as hosted by Tim Brooke-Taylor and Lisa Aziz.

Listeners in Wales will be able to hear Y Talwrn, the annual poetry competition, on Radio Cymru tonight. Viewers in Ireland can enjoy twelve mystery celebrities running a hotel in Fáilte Towers on RTE1 from tonight. For the rest of us, it's The Amazing Race on Challenge (7pm weeknights) and Britain's Strongest Man (C5, 8pm Wednesday).

Image:Square Premium rate.jpg

0898 BBC Fine

OFCOM has delivered its report into eight more 0898gate scandals, and fined the BBC for each of them. Owing to the length and detail of these reports, we'll present a brief précis of the cases, and have put them after the main content of this week's Week. (There's nothing other than fines to follow.)

The summary is a series of cock-ups: in part, failure by the then-head of 6 Music to follow established protocol, and he left the BBC some months ago. In part, cock-ups to make charity appeals run more smoothly. Only one of the cases involved premium-rate lines, and the BBC did not financially profit from any of these errors. Compare and contrast with the planned deceptions from ITV and GCap, where the aim was to encourage people to call for prizes they had no hope of winning.

For faking a winner on Sports Relief (15 July 2006): £45,000. This related to an attempt to interest people in the Chantelle v Jade Goody Mastermind special. Callers were asked to donate an even number of pounds if they thought one of the competitors would win, or an odd number of pounds if they thought the other would win. The competition ran for just six minutes, which BT said while planning was a bit short. There were so few people calling in that the random draw failed to produce any entries, still less a winner. The Executive Producer put a cunning plan into action: fake a winner.

For faking a winner on Children in Need (18 November 2005): £35,000. This was on the Scottish opt-out, where viewers had a chance of winning a visit to the set of Raven. The plan was that one of the Scottish call centres would select ten callers at random, and they'd be called back in turn: the first caller to say they wanted the prize would win it. The call centre hadn't been told of the plan, no names were taken or provided, and the award went to a fictitious child. The contest was overseen by an unskilled volunteer, and the producer pressed the floor assistant to provide "a name", which turned into a name, age, and location. The decision to fake a winner was made, in part, from "received wisdom" that people will stop calling if there appear to be technical problems on air.

For faking a winner on Comic Relief (17 March 2007): £45,000. The contest was a Through the Keyhole-style question, and five callers in the usually-slow post-midnight period were called back. Only two were able to participate, and they both managed to get the patronisingly easy question wrong. The show's associate producer went to the air, and "won" the contest. Members of the production team met twice in the following week, and decided to keep the matter quiet, even though the faked Blue Peter winner scandal had already broken.

For faking a winner on TMI (16 September 2006): £50,000. "Birthday Bingo" was meant to be a pile of toys and other goodies, given away to someone who had their birthday on a date randomly selected. On the launch show, the lines went down, callers couldn't be contacted, and a researcher played the role of a winner. This was the only one of the shows to use premium-rate telephone lines, at 10p a call. The production staff said that, though there was £140-worth of gubbins going to the winner, it wasn't a competition but an interaction with the audience.

Image:Square BBC.jpg

For faking a winner on Russell Brand (9 April 2006), £17,500. This was a recorded programme, and included a fake phone-in contest, "won" by a member of staff. This was a deliberate attempt to mislead the listening public, and was personally authorised by the channel's Head of Programmes. None of the 20 listeners could win the prize offered.

For faking winners on the Clare McDonnell show (from September 2006): £17,500. The show went out in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning, and included a contest. Very few entries were received, and on an unrecorded number of occasions, the producers invented winners. Repeat winners were also disqualified without notice, and some entries may have been disregarded because they were made after the next week's shows were recorded.

For faking winners on the Jo Whiley show (20 April and 12 May 2006): £75,000. These were also recorded shows, and the faked contests were "won" by staff. Again, these were planned deceptions, and on one occasion included getting a listener from the previous day to pretend to be a winner. The fine is higher, in part because Jo goes out on Radio 1 while Brand and McDonnell were on digital-only 6 Music, but also because Jo twice gave apologies that OFCOM found to be incomplete.

For faking winners on the Liz Kershaw Show (on up to 17 dates between 25 July 2005 and 6 January 2007): £115,000. Again, the shows were pre-recorded and "won" by BBC staff. Similar events took place from 1 May 2005, but cannot be dealt with by OFCOM as it did not have powers over BBC radio until July. OFCOM regarded this as the most serious case involving the BBC, as it involved pre-meditated decisions to transmit competitions that listeners couldn't win, and doing so over a period of more than a year. Before her 6 Music programme was taken off air last summer, Liz Kershaw told her audience, "I did feel uncomfortable about it at the time, but I didn't do anything about it. I'd like to apologise to the licence payers who pay my wages unreservedly...for being a coward...I'd like to say sorry for being part of a charade." This apology wasn't cleared with the channel's controller, and OFCOM suggested that it was too personal. We disagree, and are pleased to say that Liz is still broadcasting for listeners in Coventry, and makes by far the best breakfast listening this side of Gloucester.

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