Weaver's Week 2008-11-23

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In this Week: a fine performance from Manchester, Oxford's famous Quiz Machine rolls on, John Sergeant finds the joke's not funny any more, and Jeff Stelling returns to Channel 4.


Spin Star

Endemol for ITV, 3.14 weekdays (except in Scotland)

(And it is 3.14; we made the mistake of setting our video for 3.15, and missed the opening titles. Don't think we missed much.)

The premise of Spin Star is that someone is going to become very, very rich. Actually, no they're not, but some contestants will take home a decent enough payout. On each day's show, there's one person spinning the wheels, and five others answering questions. After five days answering questions, these people will move to spin the wheels, and potentially win some money.

The first part of the show has three spins of the computer-generated wheels. On the first wheel is a question category and its difficulty; questions are graded easy, medium, or difficult, and subjects are perhaps a little more specific than usual – there are such titles as Action Figures and Hats. The next three wheels contain each player twice, and the final wheel has amounts of money ranging from £500 to £3000.

As the host Bradley Walsh explains at great length, and repeatedly, the wheels are independently audited. We assume that this means the computer code driving the display has been checked by an independent team of programmers, and that the results can be precisely determined by the starting conditions. We remember a previous occasion when the auditors managed to introduce an artificial unfairness into an Endemol production precisely because they used a commercial computer program that was a poor random number generator.

Anyway, back to the game. For no adequately-explored reason, Mr. Walsh gives each contestant £500. Would it be beyond the wit of the producers to generate another wheel, giving various initial values from £100 to £1000, and using this as the initial stake? It gives Mr. Walsh an excuse to pull the lever, and for the crowd to cheer something before we've met the contestant.

Some paragraphs ago, we mentioned a subject, some contestants, and an amount of money. Questions are asked to the contestants on the subject, and if they give a correct answer, they get that much money put into their bank. Should the contestants err, then their bank is untouched.

After the break comes the second phase. The subjects are different, the cash prizes have increased. Added to the subject reel is a "brainbuster", a particularly difficult question. Added to the cash reel is a "bankbuster"; if the contestant gets the question wrong, their bank is reset to nothing. Just to add a little spice, the contestant is allowed to re-spin some or all of the reels, with two catches; they're not allowed to spin only one reel again, it has to be none or two. Also, the "brainbuster" and "bankbuster" can't be re-spun. It allows for a little strategy, letting the player build up one big number, or spreading the cash across a number of players.

After three spins of this, we have the final round. The player spins the question reel, and each of the main reels, once more, but this time there are "bankbuster" spaces on the main reels. The number of "bankbuster" spaces depends on whether the contestant answers questions correctly or not. Hit a name, and the player wins however much money is in that player's bank. Land on a "bankbuster", and the contestant loses all the money they've won so far. Hit one on the final reel – and there's at least a one-in-six chance of that happening – and the contestant leaves with nothing.

Such is the game; it's nothing more than a glorified fruit machine, and it doesn't make any particular claim to be much more than a game of luck with a few questions thrown in. Bradley Walsh keeps the game fizzing along at a good pace, but there are a few problems that even his swift-witted talent can't resolve.

First, what incentive is there for a contestant to answer the question correctly? Why not take 10% of a contestant's accumulated bank over their five days, and give them that much as a starter for their final? "Our spinster today is Old Mother Hubbard. She's done really well as a daily player, earning £6000 for her fellows, so she starts today with £600." (Cue wild applause.)

That's another problem, though there's a proper studio audience, their reactions are obviously enhanced by plastic applause and laughlifts. The effect actually feels phonier than an entirely canned crowd, such as on Going for Gold. The editing has also been a bit strange; it's not technically poor, but it feels somehow wrong.

The second round has strategic opportunities, though the contestants in the episodes we've seen have been unable to exploit that chance to make their own luck. Risk-averse players will try to build equally, players who like a gamble will pile on to one brainbox, hoping that that person comes up twice in the final game. We're not a fan of all-or-nothing final games, and we wouldn't be averse to the contestant being offered some percentage of their current prize to walk away before spinning the final wheel. Other people, who do like do-or-die moments, argue against such wussiness.

The main problem is of credibility. The wheels are computer-generated, which – unless Endemol opens up the computer code for public inspection – is always going to make people smell a rat. Even when the environmental health has given the show a clean bill of health, someone will always smell a rat. Would it be possible to construct a physical wheel (or five wheels, ranging from 10 to 14 spaces) in appropriate colours for the final round? It's not enough that the game is fair, it's got to be seen to be fair.

The show also explores basic probability theory. For instance, in comments at Mr. Bother's Bar, the question was asked, "Why is it when they need to get one name for a jackpot, does it always fall in just above or below?" Consider a 12-space wheel, with one name carrying £10,000. Two spaces will win this jackpot. Four spaces are just above or below these spaces.

The chance of landing on a jackpot space, clearly, is 2/12. Landing on a space immediately above or below is predicated on missing a jackpot space in the first instance, so the probability is 4/10. It feels like it happens far more often, because it does – 16% of spins win, and 40% of the losers are out by just one.

It's perfectly serviceable, but Spin Star isn't particularly our cup of tea, especially when we could be watching Countdown. It will appeal to people who prefer their games on luck, rather than brains.

University Challenge

Second Round, 2/7: Manchester v York

In a change to the advertised programme, we seem to have Manchester, who beat Bristol on 29 September; against York, who beat the Royal Veterinary College on 21 July. Both sides won their match at a canter, and it'll be interesting to see how they fare against clearly-better opposition. (We were expecting to see Corpus Christi Oxford and Edinburgh, but evidently that'll have to wait for another Monday: 1 December seems to be favourite.)

Anyway, the Word of the Week is "Golden", and it gets Manchester off to the better start. A run of incorrect answers sends Thumper off the rails, he starts babbling in Italian. "Il nome suo nessun saprà! e noi dovrem, ahime, morir! Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle, tramontate, stelle! All'alba vincerò!" Oh, it's the lyric from "Nessun dorma". Manchester gets another set of questions on the periodic table as a chessboard. They also pick up the first visual round, on US presidential candidates, and leads 90-0. That would probably have been the Hidden Transmission Indicator of the Week, if only Autumnwatch hadn't intervened.

It's far too soon for either side to be ahead by a hundred points, yet Manchester has managed that, and more. They dive from poets to Fawlty Towers and works of art to uranium. "There's still plenty of time, York, I know it looks bad..." says Thumper after Manchester have run up a 150-0 lead. Within moments York has buzzed, and (er) the lead is now 150-(-5). Manchester get this week's Will Shortz quiz, two-letter state abbreviations that are also English words. On only their fourth buzz, York pick up a correct answer, the Chancellor of the Exchequer earns the points. The audio round is on popular music that's so popular no-one knows it, and Manchester's lead is 175-15.

Hmm, never thought we'd hear "I wanna be sedated" on this show. York gets another starter to just about keep the game alive, but then every Manchester player has got at least one starter. Some have many moe, of course. The second visual round is on allegories of the Virtues, and York has, perhaps, begun to stage an improbable comeback, cutting the lead from two hundred to 225-55.

Or not: Manchester wins the race to the buzzer for "run-off", and for the next starter, and we can't quite see York closing the gap in the five minutes before Victoria Coren starts barking. (Or, for viewers in Scotland, before she finishes barking.) Our Canadian correspondent reports that Thumper is harsh – but entirely accurate – to determine that Northwest Territories and Nunavut are territories, not provinces. York stages something of a comeback, but it's too little too late. Manchester wins, and wins easily: 280-80.

Henry Pertinez was best on the buzzer for Manchester, securing six starters. At one point, the side had a bonus conversion rate of 21/33; it finished at 26/47, with two missignals. For York, Robert Mitchell had two starters, the side ended with 7/15 bonuses and one missignal.

Next match: St John's Cambridge v King's Cambridge in the repechage final.


Episode 12

John "Smallhead" Humphrys pays tribute to the thousands who have gone before them in the black chair.

Brian Bogie is the first of tonight's four, and he's been swotting up on Ian Botham, the famous cricketer, walker, and friend of elephants. We're reminded of Mr. Botham's ability to skittle the Australians out for about one run, his ability to charm journalists into spending a month walking with him when they'd only packed for a morning, and his short-lived film career. It's a great subject, and a great round: 15 (0).

Next is Gordon Innes, who has picked the Munros of Scotland. These are a collection of hills, all more than 3000 feet (914m) in height, and many people spend their summers climbing some or all of these mountains. There are a fair few questions on the legends that gave the mountains their names, and a good number on the hills themselves. 12 (2) is the final score.

Image:Square only connect circle.jpg

A familiar face next: Ian Bayley was on Only Connect just four nights ago – or, if you prefer to watch the Friday repeat, he'll be back in 22 minutes. His subject is Tchaikovsky, the Russian composer from the late 19th century with a fine grasp of harmony and a name that is almost impossible to spell unaided. After a slightly shaky start, the round concludes well, on 13 (0).

The final contender is Christopher Gonet, and he's taking the "James Bond" novels of Ian Fleming. These were a group of twelve novels between 1953 and 1966, set in the world of espionage and intrigue. The questions mostly revolve around minor plot points and probably contain slight spoilers. The contender reaches 10 (0).

"Trivial piffle" is what Mr. Fleming called his most famous creation; Mr. Gonet says that Bond was always fighting for the right, and they were a distraction from the austere post-war society. The general knowledge questions are answered at a fair old lick, and he finishes on 23 (0).

Smallhead still makes his day-to-day living hosting a little-heard show on the wireless, in which he asks uneducated and irrelevant questions of leading politicians that reveal more about himself than the interviewee. Mr. Innes is badgered about whether there should be wind turbines in the hills, a question of such limited interest as to be a waste of television time. The questions are answered, not always correctly, and the contender finishes on 21 (3).

Dr. Bayley also suffers from Smallhead's opinionated view of the world when he suggests that Tchaikovsky wasn't one of the greatest composers ever. What rot! He could compose ballets, chamber music, opera, symphonies – he was an all-rounder to rank with Mozart and Beethoven. Can we get Des Lynam back? Through the years of this column, we've encountered Dr. Bayley on many occasions – he was nicknamed The Quiz Machine in our first University Challenge series – and it's no surprise to find he scoots ahead to 26 (0).

Mr. Bogie requires twelve to win; with the duration of the chats, he won't tie. Mr. Botham is still the greatest wicket-taker for the English cricket side, and was the Boys Own hero who single-handedly kept cricket on the front pages for a decade. Even if he didn't quite get his leg over that time. His round includes a pass early on, and it's not going at the steaming rate he needs to win. The final score is 23 (4).

This Week And Next

Image:Square strictly sergeant.jpg

We had the misfortune to listen to the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 last Monday. Amongst all the difficult problems of the world, they were discussing John Sergeant on Strictly Come Dancing. Now, we've not actually been watching the show, preferring to watch proper dancers, like the ones on BBC2 last night. But, apparently, Mr. Sergeant may not be the most accomplished ballroom dancer in the world.

The thrust of the discussion was whether Strictly Come Dancing is a) a dance competition, b) an entertainment programme, c) an excuse for grown-up people to have a good old slanging match, or d) a commercial opportunity to flog loads and loads of records and make Simon Cowell very rich indeed. For our money, Strictly is mostly b) with a bit of a) thrown in, though some people are trying to make it somewhat more c). Compare and contrast with The X Factor, which fulfils criteria d), d), d), c), and d). In that order. Though we may have the last two mixed up. Anyway, Mr. Sergeant is entertaining the audience, which is more than we can say for most of BBC1's output at the moment. Particularly that bloke who did the swingometer on the recent Election Night show.

Mr. Sergeant's continued presence on Strictly was supported by Janet Street-Porter, whose column in Wednesday's Independent featured personal attacks on the judges. Within hours, he pulled out, saying that though it was always his intention to have fun, "the trouble is that there is now a real danger that I might win the competition. Even for me that would be a joke too far."

While the chattering classes were discussing what this said about the traditional support for the underdog against the bully, ITV's commissioners were left with a mild problem. People were talking about Strictly Come Dancing. People had been talking about The X Factor. No-one gave a monkey's kidney about I'm a Celebrity, where former policeman Brian Paddick and former Shafted host Robert Kilroy-Silk were in a battle to become the camp's alpha male. Well, beta male, seeing as how Antan Dec rule the place like gods. Literally: they come in once a day, shake the place up a bit, then leave as mysteriously as they came.

After five months of silence, we finally learned the news on Friday. Countdown's new host will not be Alexander Armstrong, as appeared inevitable a month ago. It won't be Des Walker, as we jokingly suggested in August. It won't be a friendly robot programmed to dispense quick quips and bad puns and teapots, they've tried that already. No, the new host will be Jeff Stelling, best known as the television frontsman for the World League of American Football.

Rachel Riley will take over in Number Corner; she's a youthful graduate from Oxford University. If we're to believe the Channel 4 press office, she's claiming that hers is the "only cool maths job around". It's a claim that won't endear her to the many other cool mathematicians out there, including Get 100's Hardeep Singh Kolhi, Dungeons 'n' Dragons expert Tim Harford, Numberwang's Robert Webb, Bristol Casino's The Banker, and Johnny Ball. Let's blame the press office, we can never find their webpage. Anyway, we'll be watching the first three weeks of Stelling's Spellings in the new year, though there's the small matter of an extraordinarily early Finals Week to get through. 4-12 December is hardly Christmas, is it.

In the week to 9 November, the Saturday night juggernauts continued to grind on – 10.7m for The X Factor, 10.05m for Strictly Come Dancing, and that's Strictly's first ten-million figure of the year. All-Star Family Fortunes had a series-best 6.9m viewers, and Friday's HIGNFY 5.95m. On BBC2, Dragons' Den Behind the Curtain picked up 3.45m, comfortably ahead of Dancing On Two's 2.95m. Deal or No Deal led on Channel 4, with 2.65m viewers.

1.55m people tuned to The Xtra Factor on ITV2 when they couldn't believe the result. 645,000 saw Hell's Kitchen USA, and 600,000 the repeat of The X Factor. Over on More4, 960,000 watched the conclusion to Come Dine With Me, a record for the show on that channel. QI on Dave had 455,000, and America's Next Top Model on Living was seen by 415,000 phasmidophiles. Over on CBBC, Gimme a Break attracted 280,000 viewers.

Next week... well, not much, to be honest. Channel 5 has World's Strongest Man (8pm Friday), Challenge has new episodes of Wipeout and Ninja Warrior, and, er, that's it.

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