Weaver's Week 2022-07-17

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With our own University Challenge taking an extended summer break, let's look at how they do it elsewhere.


College Bowl

Village Roadshow Entertainment Group in association with Richard Reid Productions and Tough Lamb Media for NBC, 22 June to 7 September 2021

BBC2's beloved University Challenge is based on College Bowl, a challenge between universities in the United States. The show ran from 1953 on NBC Radio, and later CBS and NBC Television. It hasn't been seen on network television since 1970, though a non-broadcast revival was established in 1977, and it's occasionally appeared on local stations.

When it comes to structure, our familiar University Challenge is similar to the original College Bowl format of the 1950s. But time marches on, fashions change, and NBC cannot rely on sixty years of history. College Bowl hasn't been on NBC's screens since 1970: it may as well be a completely new format. While we recognise the basic idea, many of the trimmings and trappings are different.

Roll up! Roll up!

The first difference? Only three players take part for each team. They stand behind long desks in a warehouse space, facing each other. The university gets its logo on the front of the desk, and the university's colours are used for the team's forenames. Informality rules the roost: the team are Joey Jeffy and Jamie, not Smith Jones and Taylor.

The team from Mississippi University, all three of them.

We meet the teams through tightly-edited packages: video clips and photos from the campus, then each player introduces themself at their studies. It's a refreshing change from Jeremy Paxman reading out a long list of former students. While we would like to see such packages on UC, we fear that Granada's budget couldn't do justice to the style. Better no package than an anaemic copy, such as when they had Mastermind contestants talking about their subjects some years back.

And we meet the hosts. Peyton Manning reads out the questions. He's supported by his brother Cooper Manning, in what appears to be an anaemic copy of the Xander-and-Richard double act. It turns out that Peyton will read all the questions, Cooper is there to provide "funny" jokes that simply don't land. He wants to be the show's richardosman, he might actually be the statlerandwaldorf.

Cooper (left) and Peyton Manning. Sharper suits than jokes.

Or he might be the Mike Richards, a producer who believes he's the best person to present the show. The production company is co-owned by the Manning brothers, and that's enough to ensure they double-dip and host the programme. Not everyone can be a William G Stewart, and it's painful to see people try and flail.

The … category board?

Though it was a tournament, there are some differences between the rounds, so we'll start with a "qualifying" match. Two teams face off against each other, and they see a board of four categories. These are quite specific categories, hidden behind punning categories in the style of Jeopardy!.

The categories on a big board: American History 2000-09 (which makes us feel old); Patriarchs in Society; Introduction to Entemology; Phil-osophy

The team in the lead picks one of the four categories. Peyton Manning then reads a question, and we viewers see it on screen. We believe the players can't interrupt this buzzer question, so it's a six-way race to the buzzer as soon as he's finished. Ten points for the first player to buzz in and give the right answer.

That player's team gets the bonus round. Or, to be precise, first dibs on the two bonus questions. They're on the same broad topic as the starter, and test more detailed knowledge. Should the first team get the question wrong, their opponents can pick it up for a bonus bonus on the bonus. Most of the bonus questions come with a picture or short film clip.

Alabama are asked why this bug is glowing.

Ten points for each of these bonus answers, so 30 for the complete set. Except that one category on the board is "extra credit", played for double points. Whoever gets the starter right gets to choose the next category, except the fourth and final category is left for a future show. Two boards are played, whoever trails after the first board gets first pick on the second.

Then there's the "Two-minute drill" round. These are questions on a very broad topic (history, "pre-med", "liberal arts", communications, business, sports and recreation). Buzz in and answer: interruptions are encouraged. The scores are massively and hugemungously slanted towards this round, at 25 points per correct answer and a bonus 50 for a set of five right. Sweep both categories boards and you can get 210 points; get seven right across the "two-minute drill" and you've already amassed 225 points.

The Auburn team put their heads together.

After both of the teams have had their drill, we repeat with two different teams from other universities. Top two scores on tonight's show make the quarter-finals, along with the two best-scoring losers across three shows. That's a complex structure, confusing enough to interest the Only Connect producers. The Manning brothers made it seem reasonably simple.

Former students appear after each commercial break to offer support. Almost all of the alumnae are famous through sport. And that's a massive cultural difference between NBC's show and the BBC's. Here, we know universities for their academic achievements and the calibre of people they produce. Over there, universities get their reputation through sports – basketball, softball, running, jumping, fencing, and most famously a version of rugby football.

A former NCAA football player offers support to Alabama.

Peyton Manning is a veteran of the NCAA's football sport, as were most of the "celebrity" alumnae. This was quite clearly done to maximise interest to the passing viewer, and that is absolutely fine. Hook 'em with the stuff they know, keep 'em watching for something new. The series launched with Alabama versus Auburn, a local derby to compare with Nottingham versus Leicester: only big in the sports world.

But once you've hooked them with sports, can you wean the viewer off to proper academics? Not to start with, at least. Questions in the first round were easy. "What is the medical name for the kneecap?" appeared on this show: it would not be out of place on CBBC's quiz Top Class for intelligent 11-year-old children. The most difficult questions would not be out of place on the next Blockbusters revival, for young people of 16-18 years.

Some questions are tired cliches. "What iconic doll's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts?"

While we appreciate that there's got to be playalong value, especially in a new show, this felt very much too easy. In particular, there's little chance for the students to show off the value of their university education, something exposed with almost every question on University Challenge. Difficult questions can make compelling television: a mixture between easy and hard would be great, but College Bowl tests superficial knowledge.

Not that there's anything wrong with the questions: like on The Chase, the writers pack a lot of information into a short question. "Maglev trains get their name because what type of objects levitate them?" Lev, levitation, so what begins with "mag"? Even if you don't know it's magnets, you can make a guess. "Which tax company was founded by brothers Henry and Richard?" One for the locals, who can be expected to have heard of H&R Block, who make their money preparing tax returns for people.

Knockout rounds

The second round exposed more weaknesses in the format. We don't swap teams halfway through, it's straight knockout for the hour, which is much better. There are three boards of five subjects, again one is left unplayed. Again, the questions remain in the Top Class to Blockbusters scale.

Eleanor (inset, right) has challenged Nathan to name an Olympic city.

And there's a new round, the "dropout" round. Like on Who Dares Wins, they go from team to team, down the line player to player. One wrong answer, one repeated answer, you're out. Take too long, you're out. Last team with a player standing goes through to the "two-minute drill" as an entire trio, the defeated side must face the finale with two brains.

This round is made far more fraught than it actually is. There's a "challenge" rule – demand an opponent gives an answer, risking your place if they're right. The host presumes we've not been watching the last 25 seconds of action, and explains this every time. Any flow is ruined by the constant stops. And, frankly, it's not huge drama: the teams know their final round subject, so choose something the captain and one player can do, allowing the other to be exiled without much penalty.

The teams stand on set.

An unfinished list is unfinished business, but they never bothered to list the remaining Olympic host cities, or Basketball Association of America teams, or whatever today's category is. Unlike Who Dares Wins, Peyton doesn't tell the viewers the source of his lists. With a very quick web search, we can find three different "Top 20 US-based retailers", one of which does not accord with the answers used on the show. Hope NBC has got someone answering the letters from the other viewer who spotted this.

College Bowl has irritating little tics. Almost every answer begins with "Peyton, our answer is ..." – were the teams asked to make it clear what their answer is? Or is this verbal filler, to pad out the programme? Peyton is a host in the modern Jeremy Paxman mould, with a slow delivery. His enunciation could be clearer, and his pronunciation is often wrong – the prince's name "Ranier" takes three syllables, "Greta Thunberg" ends with an "eh" sound, and there's an aspirated "h" in "herb". Peyton can pronounce "Comin' to ya... Comin' to ya... Comin' to ya". Peyton only has one way to indicate what's coming up.

Slight satellite delay between the brothers.

It's a 43-minute programme, with about 30 minutes of content. There's a lot of filer, enough to make it a choppy viewing experience – and we're watching without the adverts. There are brief and insubstantial chats with the contestants, the interstitials from former students. Worst of all, a "coming up" section, previews of answers we're about to see. That's just a spoiler, it completely ruins suspense for that question.

What did we like about College Bowl? The set design is detailed enough to give a sense of place, although it might lean a bit too much towards clichés. David Russo's music enhanced the show: a low throb through the question, rising to a whoosh – or buzz. The video packages to introduce the colleges added value, and the show used pictures and video clips where they enhanced the question.

The flag of which organisation? Would you like ten points on a plate?

College Bowl is an NBC programme, and it is sponsored by a financial company. As a result, the programme witters on about awarding "a million dollars" in prizes, which might imply that the winning team will collect $1,000,000 (then 850 000€, £700,000). No. That's the total prize across all teams: the winners get half that total between them, with much smaller prizes for the other competitors. The money is dedicated to fund the students' education, effectively giving the winners a free university education. It could go into a general scholarship fund to support others. Or the prize could be honour, but NBC doesn't do amateurism.

Though filmed during the current health crisis, you could be forgiven for not noticing from the programme. Players stood together in huddles, even the ones who hadn't met before coming to the studio. The applause comes from the CannedCrowdCompany™, and it's both obvious and annoying.

The champions came from Columbia University in New York.

And yet... and yet. We will criticise College Bowl for being far too easy, but that can be fixed. We can and will criticise for relying too hard on the final round, that can be fixed if they wish.

We cannot criticise College Bowl for a lack of ambition: it was an adequate show in its opening series, and the producers will have learned a lot from it. We aren't fans of the relaxed pace, but it helps to create a relaxed and clubbable atmosphere, and it made the show a pleasant watch.

And if the choice is between "no quiz" and "a quiz they could improve", we'll pick the flawed-but-on-air show. College Bowl returns to NBC this autumn. We'll be interested to see if it's changed, and if it's changed for the better.

In other news

Very sorry to report the death of Chris Stuart, host of science quiz Inspiration!, presenter for Cardiff Singer of the World, and latterly executive producer of Only Connect. Chris Stuart was born in County Durham, raised in Leicestershire, and helped to give Radio Wales its voice in the early 1980s. After moving to London, Chris replaced Ray Moore on the Radio 2 early breakfast show, and was the radio voice for the royal funerals of Diana and the Queen Mother. Chris and his wife Megan set up the Presentable company in 1993, its other highlights include Late Night Poker for Channel 4.

Too hot to watch television? Download the Show and Telly podcast to your device. Two recent episodes of note: Chris Goss, of the ubiquitous "Computers – Chris Goss" credit. And Ross King, of Na Na Na Na Na Ross King and Young Krypton.

How many Eurovisions do we need? Next year is beginning to look a bit crowded. Eurovision Canada will take place, Americanofestivalen might return, plans are afoot for the Senior Eurovision Song Contest in Upper Bublington, and there will doubtless be a Junior Eurovision Song Contest in the Frankfurt Christmas Market. This week, they've announced Eurovision Latin America, where broadcasters across central and south America perform their best songs in classical Latin. Salve!

Good news for Eggheads fans Channel 5 tells us there will be more chances to rub shoulders with Kevin, Judith, Chris, Beth, and the others. Twelve weeks of episodes, with a celebrity week somewhere in there.

New this week: Radio 4 has the pilot panel game The Ultimate Choice (Thu). Best in Miniature (Really, Mon) is an imported challenge for designers of very small things. We were looking forward to Bonnie Langford on Tipping Point Lucky Stars, but ITV have decided to show some self-important nonsense instead.

Pictures: Village Roadshow Entertainment Group in association with Richard Reid Productions and Tough Lamb Media, BBC via Anorak Attic.

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