Weaver's Week 2004-10-23

Weaver's Week Index

23 October 2004

Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.

An unusual Week this time, as we hand over part of the column to a long-running matter.


Big Brother - The Ofcom Ruling

It's four months since the infamous "Fight Night," in which the game of Big Brother was put on ice for the unedifying spectacle of eleven grown people going at each other hammer-and-tongs. After due consideration, OFCOM (the Office of Communications, the government-appointed regulator of all things on independent television) has given its ruling on the Channel 4 coverage. The presence of this report probably means that the police have decided to take no action, as the OFCOM adjudication could easily be interpreted as comment on a possible criminal case.

Many of the 328 (count 'em!) complaints to OFCOM revolved around the live coverage on E4 and (for most of the night) on C4. SMSes from viewers were invited and displayed at the bottom of the screen. During the most violent period, the question posed by C4 to viewers was "Has Jason lost it?" and then "Have they all lost it?". The messages from viewers chosen by the channel ranged from "time to bring in an adult", "GET TO THE HOUSE!" to "This is quality. LOVIN IT. COME ON J!", "this is the bomb let them fight". We missed this at the time, and that's probably a good thing.

Summarising the complaints, we hear:

"Viewers were upset and concerned about the level of violence (both verbal and apparently physical) in the Big Brother house, the effect of this on the contestants and the circumstances that allowed these events to take place. Viewers felt that the conflict was 'engineered' by Channel 4, which chose to reintroduce Emma and Michelle into what would predictably be a volatile situation, and that the situation was fuelled by the supply of alcohol... Viewers said the level of implied and actual physical/verbal violence went beyond what they would expect from an entertainment programme. As the scenes also included the obvious distress of some housemates, some viewers felt this was not only offensive and distressing to watch, but that it exploited certain housemates.

"Viewers also said that the audio, which continued to run in most of the live coverage, was an additional cause of distress. In the absence of pictures to confirm what was happening, the continued shouting and occasional sounds that suggested objects were being thrown or used violently, amplified viewers' concerns. Viewers also felt that the length of time the situation was allowed to continue for was unacceptable. There was an apparent lack of a swift, effective intervention by Big Brother. This was particularly offensive as there was usually a rapid response to relatively minor infringements of house rules and this appeared to encourage potential violence. The text messages that continued to run along the bottom of the screen appeared to confirm that Channel 4 was not taking the situation seriously and this implied that the participants could be in danger, which was distressing for viewers. Many viewers were offended by the later decision to evict Emma, rather than any of the other protagonists. This was seen to condone unacceptable aggression, and unfair (and therefore exploitative) to Emma herself."

In their defence, Channel 4 said that the audience deserved to see what happened in the house, even when it involved extreme behaviour, so long as it was fairly edited and appropriate for its slot. OFCOM did not ask about, and Channel 4 did not respond to, wider criticisms that the show has always been edited to show contestants in pre-determined roles. The channel continued:

"In terms of the reintroduction of Emma and Michelle into the house, it was decided that it would be best to do that in the context of a relaxed and upbeat party. Although there was to be some alcohol provided, there was also a significant quantity of food. Full consideration was given to the possibility of some friction but it was genuinely believed that, in this environment, any such friction would be at a manageable level. Housemates had returned to the house before in previous series."

This claim is more than a little disingenuous; the only contestant to return in the four previous series had been Jon Tickle, a man who was respected by all in his house, and who had more than a modicum of discretion. We know that concerns had been expressed within the Endemol production office before this year's stunt was pulled, and one psychologist resigned from the show immediately afterwards. We must also remember that the party came at the end of a fractious few days, when bizarre things had been happening, and the contestants had been given fancy dress costumes on an arbitrary basis; we suspect that this does not form an atmosphere conducive to a relaxed party. We also recall that on the previous occasion when food had been provided, much of it ended up being thrown about.

"The conflict only arose very late at night. For the majority of the evening relations between the housemates were relatively cordial. At the first indication of a problem it was decided to deploy security staff in the camera runs which circled the house. The security guards, having closely monitored developments, entered the house at the point where it became apparent that the conflict was not going to peter out of its own accord... Channel 4 said that the fact that the incident continued to be transmitted until the shouting and screaming had abated would have served to reassure viewers that the outcome was not as bad as they might otherwise have imagined. The decision to cut to the 'safety shots' of certain household and garden items was taken precisely at a point when the conflict had subsided."

Viewers who saw the whole night were worried from around midnight, some hours before the guards arrived. Those who stuck with the live footage through the night returned to confusing shots of security guards and missing contestants will disagree. Those who saw the edited programme may, again, take a different view.

After dismissing the concerns of those who expressed concern about the way the contestants may have had their privacy invaded (they signed up, they could leave, nothing much doing here), OFCOM's adjudication went as follows:

"We recognise that both the E4 live coverage and the Channel 4 Big Brother highlights programme were scheduled late at night and that the latter's continuity announcements gave an indication of the type of content viewers could expect. The live coverage on E4 was preceded by an announcement warning of 'strong language and adult content'. Nevertheless, it does appear that the programmes containing the confrontation in the house exceeded the expectations of the audience.

"Many of those who complained described themselves as ardent Big Brother viewers but said that they did not expect aggression to escalate, unchecked, to this point. The nature of the Big Brother programme - a reality programme with 'real people' interacting in 'real time' (the events were apparently unfolding as they watched) - meant that the audience related to the scenes in this entertainment programme in a different way to if they had seen them in a drama or soap opera. Viewers' offence and distress arose from the images (and audio) on screen, but were compounded by their knowledge of the programme format (in that the situation was within the control of Channel 4).

"The events shown in the Big Brother highlights programme on Channel 4 were appropriately edited and scheduled. This programme was not in breach of the Code.

"However, we acknowledge the concerns of the viewers of Big Brother Live on E4, who knew the full background to the situation, and who saw a potentially dangerous situation develop and who had no way of predicting the outcome of this situation. This was frightening and concerning for some viewers, so much so that some called the police. Although the voice of Big Brother tried to calm the situation by summoning housemates to the Diary Room, it was approximately 20 minutes (in real time) from when the fight turned physical to when security guards entered the house.

"The apparent absence of intervention by Channel 4 to prevent the situation escalating to this point, having 'engineered' the situation originally, clearly caused distress and offence to viewers. While accepting that security men may have been positioned, the production team's eventual intervention appeared to be too late, particularly since the confrontation had turned physical. The offence was compounded by the text message captions running at the bottom of the screen, which gave viewers the impression that Channel 4 was continuing to treat as entertainment, a situation that had, from what viewers could see, become serious.

"In this context, we feel that the intensity and repetition of verbal and physical violence exceeded viewers' expectations."

There's very little with which we can disagree in the OFCOM adjudication; the Thursday night show was as fair and balanced as any programme in this desperately difficult situation could have been; and it is clear that C4's coverage of the live event left much to be desired.

We do note that there are two large holes in the decision. OFCOM has confined itself to the footage that was broadcast on C4 or E4. It hasn't looked at the unbroadcast footage, which seems a remarkable abdication of the media watchdog's responsibilities to look over television as a whole. Neither does OFCOM address the moral issues that we presented in the following weeks. To précis: did Channel 4 reward violence by allowing some of the perpetrators to remain in the house, and taking money by voting them out. OFCOM's adjudication has left this weighty matter unaddressed, it's one for the viewers to decide. We must also decide for ourselves whether to continue to support the Big Brother franchise.


Heat 24/24

Richard Dale, the History of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The primary reference for Going for Gold (though that wasn't a question) nets 12 (1).

Jonathan Shaw, XTC. That's an idiosyncratic Swindon rock band from the late 1970s to the present day. He scores a very strong 15 (1) - less hanging about.

Susan Leng, the Life and Work of George Hudson. Who? Railway entrepreneur in the York area in the mid 1800s, latterly an MP, an interesting character, scoring 12 (0).

And finally, Brian Daugherty, the History of the City of Moscow. Lots of tricky Russian pronunciations make this a slow round, and that's going to count against Brian. He finishes on 12 (2).

Straight back in the black chair, Brian's first question on triskidecaphobia takes his score to thirteen. His final score is 23 (5), which doesn't feel like a winning score.

Richard Dale was an encyclopaedia salesman in his dotage, gets the David Beckham memorial metatarsal question, and finishes on 20 (5).

Susan Leng's is a familiar name, she may have been on the Krypton Factor back in the 1980s. She's asked for the main ingredient of taramasalata, which is either fish roe or the letter A. She finishes on 21 (2).

Jonathan Shaw, therefore, needs nine to win outright. He gets five, then falls into error hell, and a few passes as well. Not good, but he's probably right to guess. The buzzer goes a little too soon, and he finishes on 21 (4).

University Challenge

First round 6/14: Durham -v- Kingston

Durham were with us last year, falling by ten to the superb London Met side. Durham has made the second round or further in each of the last six tournaments, including a win in 2000. It's Kingston's first appearance, they were one of the 1992 New Universities; on past form, Kingston's appearance will be the only one by a New University.

Kingston has slightly the better of the opening exchanges, and the ludicrously specialised picture round - Name That Godzilla-like Monster - leaves Durham five behind. Kingston gets a long starter about puns, though it doesn't quote Puzzle Panel's Chris Maslanka - "they're bad. All of them." They're let down by not having a scientist on the team - Durham has a mathematician.

It's a slow-scoring week, with unusually long and boring bonus sets. The scores are 50-50 after the audio round, Name Those Two Vocal Ranges From A Duet, which is as long and tedious as it sounds.

In fact, this week's show is rivalling many of last year's first round matches for complete boredom and lack of scoring. The show is slightly enlivened by this response from Durham.

Q: Which name, when used as a forename, is a transferred surname which originated as a local place name from the Old English meaning either flax or lime tree, with a suffix meaning "shallow crossing place over a river or stream"?

A: Linford

The team subsequently gets a set of bonuses on the number thirteen, but doesn't repeat the question from Mastermind. The second picture starter is the recipes for various cocktails. Durham gets that, and is 125-60 ahead with four minutes to go. Kingston need to get all the remaining starters, but miss the first one, and the long set of bonuses runs down the clock. It's no surprise to find Durham runs out the winner, nor that Kingston won't make the repechage; 190-70 is the final score.

Mark Wallace top scores for Durham, his contribution is worth 73.3 points, the team made 15/33 bonuses and one missignal. All of Kingston's correct starters came from Peter Stokes, he accounts for 64.2 points as the team made 4/18 bonuses with two missignals.

The repechage entries are unchanged: Univ Oxford 150 Jesus Cambridge 145 York 120 Downing Cambridge 105

Next: St John's Cambridge -v- Reading

This Week And Next

The third finalist on Brain of Britain is Nick Mills, a software tester from Sale, who rather dominated the semi this week.

This week: the return of Strictly Come Dancing, with Natasha Kaplinsky replacing Tess Daly, who had her first child this week. Wright Around the World returns for a snooze-inducing second series, Raven 2 finally makes BBC2, and Jamie Theakston tells his contestants to Beg, Borrow or Steal.

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