Weaver's Week 2007-01-07

Weaver's Week Index

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


View From Afar

Back in November, this column upped sticks and spent a long week-end in Belgium. They show some good television, and they show some shockingly bad television. Here's a brief overview of the lowlights and highlights, and absolutely no mentions of Walter Grooters. Except that one.

Septante et Un

French, Bigung for RTL-TVI; a version also airs in Dutch

The title presents proof, if proof were needed, that we're in Belgium, where they use "seven-tens", rather than "six-tens-and-ten" as the French do. This show is broadly similar to everyone's favourite lottery programme Een Tegen Een Hondred (back next week, Dermot-fans), but different enough to avoid the attentions of the copyright police. There are seventy members of the public (the titular "septante"), and one player. The game consists of questions, each with three possible answers. Unlike ETEH, l'Un must type in their answer during the seconds allowed. Any member of the Septante (billed as the "Public") who get the question wrong is out; if all of the Public are out at any stage, then they have lost and the player has won.

So far, so familiar. Here's the twist: there are no escapes for l'Un. The player must make a guess at each and every question. If they're wrong, then they continue in the game, but one of the Septante is returned to active play. For instance, two of the Public remains, the player errs, suddenly they're facing three opponents. There's a question limit on the game - if the Septante haven't all been eliminated after ten questions, then they take the prize money, and divvy it up between themselves. Win or lose, l'Un gets €10 per eliminated player, making a handy little €700 bonus if they sweep the board.

There are a few further complications - from question four, the player can use the BLIK lifeline to see how the Septante voted, and may then change their answer; doing so will re-introduce one player. For the last question, the player may pick one of three possible questions, hoping to capitalise on their strength, for this question is worth €1000 divided by the size of the Septante. It's the original ETEH scoring mechanism. Earlier questions are worth €100, €200, €400, three of each.

We didn't catch the name of the show's host, only noting that he looks an awful lot like Ross Geller. There's an SMS game for viewers to predict how many questions l'Un will get correct, and a lot of cheering and booing in a jovial atmosphere. This is far too close to One Against One Hundred to be a lottery format over here, but there are possibilities for daytime ITV, or teatime Channel 5.

Star Academy

French, Endemol for TF1

Now in its sixth (count 'em!) series, the Ac (an academy of stars - do you see?) has become an institution on French television. It began two weeks after Pop Idle burst onto our screens, and - by our reckoning - has provided a hit single every month for five and a half years. There's a daily highlights show, 45 minutes long, every day at 6.15. There are cover stories in teen and grown-up magazines, and a publication of its own. Two albums are pulled from each series while it's still running. In short, it's a level of exposure that's enough to turn Simon Cowell green with envy.

Not that this year's series has been without controversy - a couple of weeks before our trip, there was an all-up vote amongst the ten remaining contestants, enough to spark vitriolic articles in Téléguide (the Belgian What's On TV). The round of seven was another all-up vote, and the one we viewed on Friday night.

What does Star Ac do right that The X Factor gets wrong? How long have we got? Two hours 20, the scheduled length of the show - in the event, it runs from 8.55 almost to 11.30. From the very opening, it's clear who is the star of the show - the performers enter the vast arena, sing one ditty, then are joined by Michael Sardou, the first guest star of the night. Only now, ten minutes into the broadcast, do we see the judges, and only two of the five will speak during the night.

There is a loose format to proceedings - a montage of events involving one performer in the past week, then they'll do their solo routine. That's "solo" in the sense of "having eight costumed backing dancers, props, candlesticks, and all the accoutrements one would expect from a professional performance." After that will come a group performance amongst the contestants, or one involving the night's other star guests - Laura Pausini, top Italian singer; Yannick Noah, tennis player turned rock star (let's not mention this career path to Tim Henman); and Jimmy Somerville, as high-pitched and squeaky as ever.

The host invites us to send in our SMSs (at 50 cents - 35p - a vote) to save someone. He's got this down to a fine art - "Pour Olivia, tappez - " and then the crowd of thousands will shout "Un!" as if the mere volume of their cheering would inspire viewers to reach for their mobile phones. It certainly adds to the sense of occasion, but any show made in what appears to be a proper concert hall will have that. The host is somewhat lost in the performances - even Olivier Minne (now hosting a Paul O'Grady style teatime show) would have difficulty beating Brice's stage performance, complete with slide-on, slide-off banquette.

The judges? Oh, gosh, yes. Completely overshadowed by everything else, the judges give their mark out of 20 for each performance. As there's five of them, it's a trivial task to add the scores up, divide through by five, and resolve an average between 0 and 20. That's their entire contribution to the night, putting up seven numbers and saying a few words.

Eventually, all the fun has to come to an end, but not before we've already over-run the scheduled end time. At 11.12, voting lines close, and the interval entertainment is provided by tax exile Johnny Hallyday, performing his recent hit single. The voting is simple - whoever's last in the public vote goes home.

The series continued until late December, culminating in a surprise victory for Cyril Cinélu.

A Prendre ou a Laisser

French, Endemol for TF1

Sandwiched between the daily Ac updates and the national news is a short sketch from The Muppet Show. It's followed by Arthur, and his version of the game we know as Deal or No Deal. To take or to leave, do you see? This column had hoped to see the Dutch original, but Talpa TV (as was) does not appear on Belgian cable networks any more. A shame.

Twenty-four identical boxes (1 cent; €1, €5, €10, €15, €20, €50, €100, €250, €500; 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 50, 75, 100, 150, 200, 300, 500 thousand euro; €1,000,000) are held by 24 contestants. Each one represents their region of France, wears a badge indicating their home region, not their name, and we can't help but think of what might have happened if ITV had got hold of this game back when it still had regions.

Many aspects of the set will be familiar to British viewers. A table in the middle. Future contestants opening the boxes. The player clutching photos of their family. A Legalised SMS Lottery, always to win what the contestant will win. The concept of a bank vault is present, though the French version represents this by safe boxes on the benches beneath the contestants. The boxes, though, are blue, with the number offset to the left, allowing a re-usable string seal across the top right corner. Perhaps the biggest visible difference is the view out of the window - rather than taking place in an underground cellar, the French game is set in a high-rise building, with an airy cityscape stencilled in. The music is generally similar to the British show's muted work, but there are often interruptions for upbeat pop records.

There are changes in the game play - the boxes up to €10,000 are treated as blues, and those above are the golds. There's no gradual shading, as amounts removed from the game spin round and lose their colouring. From the start, it's six boxes to the first offer, then five, four, and three. The early proceedings are dealt with as quickly as reasonable, and it's barely 20 minutes from the opening titles until the one internal break; with five boxes remaining, Arthur opens the box, peers in, scowls, and says to come back. People will call him a legend in his own dinner-time.

From six boxes, there's an offer after every single box. It seems to be an expectation that no-one will deal before they get to that stage, and when the game is meaningful, the bank is not able to make offers so low as to be forced to play on, for it is forcing the player to continue for just one box. Almost inevitably, the late offers are close to the arithmetic mean of the remaining boxes, and are highly predictable; the UK banker has established a protocol of offering around 80% of the mean with two boxes remaining, and the large gap from five to two boxes allows far more variability. Most tellingly, we found that an offer each box built the tension in a more healthy way than the British version.

It's worth noting that the UK producers have since introduced an offer every box for a few contestants. This is one innovation we can applaud.

Een Jaar Gratis

Dutch; Written Bs for een

Fewer plaudits for this show, which features sixteen people trying to win their expenses for a year. One year free, do you see? The opening show of the season began with three players randomly picked as captains, all are shown a question, and the remaining thirteen have a Runaround line up behind whoever they think will get the answer right. Only then do four answers appear, and the captains must type in their choice without conferring. There's 100 points to be split between everyone who gives, or supports, the right answer. The bottom three on the board become the new captains, rinse, repeat, try not to fall asleep.

After five questions, we pause for a chat with one of the contestants. During the conversation, the letter D nodded off, so the remaining questions have three possible answers. Five more questions, another chat, then find that C has also fallen into the arms of Morpheus, leaving two options. After almost an hour of this - fifteen questions in an hour, you thought One Against One Hundred was dull - the top 14 in the standings get to leave, but they'll be back again next week, and presumably every week until we have a winner. Or they find something less boring to do, like watching paint dry.

The play-off, between the last two players on the leader board, is almost interesting. The bottom player is asked three questions, worth 2, 3, and 5 points. They need five points to survive; fail, and they're off the show automatically. Succeed, and the next player up answers a question with a numeric answer. Their opponent must then determine if the real answer is "meer of minder" (more or fewer) than the proposition. This is almost a Play Your Cards Right moment, but we're far too bored to say "Good game." It's not a good game.


Dutch; de Mensen for Canvas

Two contestants are in large, comfortable seats. They're not going to be subjected to endless tapes of Een Jaar Gratis until they fall to sleep, for that would a) be something for Shattered, b) be a crime of torture, and c) never fill a half-hour slot. Instead, Jo van Damme, a man with a very soothing voice, will ask questions of each in turn. He's standing in front of a video projection wall, and everything is designed to be as soporific and calm as possible.

Round one, two questions each, prepared on a subject nominated by the contestants. It gives them two points for turning up, and puts four answers in play. Round two features a cloud of 24 words and names; the player selects one word, and sees that it resolves into a linked set of four. There's a question about this category, and a correct answer earns a point. Round three is similar, a cloud of words forming six phrases, three each to try and get. Round four is Son Of Wonderwall, with twenty-five possible answers displaying at the start of the round, and four questions each. All answers, whether given correctly or not, go into play; no questions are offered to the other player.

So far, so dull? No, this is where the fun begins. There are twenty-four answers up on the board, each represented only by its initial letter. The contestants have picked up one point for each correct answer they've given. In turn, they'll be given a letter, and must give one answer that began with that letter. Give a valid response, and a point will be taken off the opponent's score. Give an incorrect response, or fail to answer in five seconds, and a point is taken off the player's score. The first contestant to be reduced to no points loses the game, and their opponent takes €100 per point they have remaining.

This actually works a lot better on screen than it sounds on the page. While the sleepy motif wouldn't work well with the UK lottery, the test of memory probably would. Even better, the game has natural breaks in which to place commercials for The Lottery Corp, and gradually ramps up the tension in a far more natural way than some shows in that slot.

In Brief

We also saw Blokken (een), a version of Tetris incorporating a quiz. Get a question right, blocks will fall. Complete lines, win euro. Rinse, repeat until everyone's asleep, or someone comes along with a more entertaining idea, perhaps based on sudoku.

Daily on Netherlands 2, that's the answer. "Whatever happened to I'm the Answer?", that's the question.

Twee Vor Twalf (Vara for Ned2) has a couple answering arts-based queries. Take the first letter of each answer, re-arrange to form a word. The game is very cerebral, and rather slow - a complete round is allowed 14 minutes, and each of twelve clues takes 30 seconds just to read. Might be a decent filler for BBC4, but probably better as an alternative to X Marks the Spot.

Back Home

BARB ratings for the week to 17 December have emerged, and the question wasn't whether X Factor would beat Come Dancing, it was the margin of victory. Narrower than we might expect - 10.8 million people saw Simon Cowell retain his title for the third year, with 9.45m tuning in for the moving in time earlier in the evening - this slipped to 7.4m for the results. HIGNFY attracted 5.55m for the Boris Johnson Christmas Extravawotsit, our hidden ratings indicator of the week. In It to Win It took 5.45m, and Question of Sport 4.7m.

On the minor channels, Deal or No Deal had 3.9m on Thursday, and all five week-day episodes made the channel's top six. Seventh place and 3.65m went to The Secret Millionaire. Weakest Link attracted 3.1m, barely ahead of Dancing On Two (3.05m). University Challenge had 2.8m, QI 2.3m, and Great British Christmas Menu 2.15m. Countdown took 1.9m for the Thursday semi-final; 1.8m tuned in one day later for the end of Des Lynam. World's Strongest Man had 1.05m on Channel 5.

No surprises to see Xtra Factor topping ITV2's ratings, 1.63m tuned in for the aftershow (yes, on a par with Des Lynam). 575,000 saw the Sunday repeat, 485,000 the Friday preview, 420,000 the Thursday look back to previous years. Just to prove that ITV wasn't all Simon and the others, 400,000 tuned in for a ...Get Me Out Of Here retrospective on Thursday.

610,000 tuned in to Sky Onc's Cirque de Celebrité (sic) on the Sunday, and 555,000 to QI on BBC4. Deal on More4 peaked with 220,000 on Tuesday, Raven with 185,000 on the Monday of finals week - we'll be reviewing that show next week. Jade's Pa attracted 195,000 to Living, QI on G2 had 130,000, and Skatoony 60,000 on Cartoon Network. Challenge's top show was Takeshi at Wednesday teatime.

Coming up this week: The Search sees Jamie Theakston helm a global hunt for treasure (C4, 9pm Sunday). Soapstar Superstar continues to gurgle around ITV's schedules all week, there's a return for Junior Mastermind (BBC1, 7pm Monday), Project Catwalk (Sky Onc, 9pm Monday), and Mock the Week (BBC2, 10pm Thursday). Viewers in Northern Ireland can see Eamonn Holmes in the Big Bumper Science Quiz (BBC1 Northern Ireland, 9pm Thursday); everyone else will have to put up with Clutter Nutters (BBC2, 7.30am weekdays, also 6.30pm CBBC). And there's a Speciale Questions Pour Un Champion (TV5, 5.29pm Wednesday), with a description that makes the rules to Mornington Crescent seem simple.

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