Weaver's Week 2007-04-01

Weaver's Week Index

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


Five, Ten

This is Weaver's Week for 1 April 2007.

Five By Five

"Channel Five will bring something to people's lives" - a publicity magazine, 30 March 1997.

It's ten years since Channel 5 first appeared on the nation's television dials. We shall leave aside the channel's poor analogue reception, and no jokes about "squinting figures" from this source. The fifth button has contributed three big ideas to television; the two that don't really fall under this column's purview are Kirsty Young's news presentation - a newsreader roaming the studio was revolutionary in 1997; and proving that there was a sufficient audience for baseball and ice hockey that Setanta could make a profit from selling a channel entirely of North American sports. But this is a game show column, and we shall discuss some of the greatest game shows ever aired by Channel 5.

When it began, Channel 5's commissioning budget was small. It was trying to fill a 24-hour schedule with budget for perhaps half that. In an effort to eke out its money, C5 aired some very cheap shows. 100% was simple. Three contestants, some heavy-duty buttons, 100 questions, and the voice of Robin Houston. The show was completely made by the dulcet tones of Robin Houston, the Thames television announcer is one of those rare people who could announce the end of the world and make us feel reassured. As with Channel 4's long-established Fifteen-to-One, the multiple-choice quiz was something that viewers had to play along with, there was nothing else for them to do. There was a daytime spin-off, 100% Gold, and there were a few special editions for evening broadcast - by our reckoning, these may have been the cheapest prime-time shows in history. 100% was taken off the air in 2002, making way for imported Australian soap Home And Away.

In the early years, 100% shared a quiz hour with Whittle, a version of Everybody's Equal only with Chris Tarrant replaced by Tim Vine. There was also Move on Up, a show so bad that this column has completely blotted it from our memory; and One to Win, a thinly-disguised version of Going for Gold. C5 also brought back Name That Tune with Jools Holland, but that bombed quickly; and It's a Knockout with Keith Chegwin had little more success. Karaoke show Night Fever, a sort-of low-rent Top Of The Pops, had a surprisingly long run.

Fort Boyard began life as something of a flagship programme for the nascent channel. The original inspiration for The Crystal Maze hadn't been seen on UK television until Leslie Grantham (in his signature role as Crochety Geezer), Geoffrey Bayldon (in his signature role as Catweazle), and Melinda Messenger (in her signature - oh, you know) guided the first side around the Fort in 1998. Though Channel 5 tried to bring the show to a conclusion after three series, the fans were having none of it, but the fourth run turned out to be the last. The success of Challenge's visits in 2003 has not been repeated, and perhaps the channel might wish to take another look at taking the original two-hour French format for a show or two.

If there's one game show we will remember from Channel 5's first decade, it's The Mole. Take ten people, stick them in a comfortable hotel, and give them challenges for money. One of these people is acting against the best interests of the team; can the players spot who it is, and remember what they're doing, because the person who knows the least about The Mole will be leaving the show. This game worked on so many levels - as straightforward challenges, as a psychological investigation, as a detective hunt and memory test. Glenn Hugill was an exceptional choice to host the show. The viewing public, however, didn't quite catch on as quickly as C5's bosses hoped, and a promised third series has never materialised.

The previous year's Jailbreak also promised much, but has somewhat been eclipsed in this column's memory by the later series. Touch the Truck was, in its own way, groundbreaking in its inanity. Twenty people gather in an Essex shopping centre and have to keep touching a truck in order to win it. Live coverage on the internet, nightly programmes helmed by Dale Winton. The "what are they doing" thought was doubled when we found it was airing just one week after the first series of The Mole finished. Channel 5 has never been afraid to experiment; sometimes, we do wish they had a little fear. See also: Naked Jungle, a footnote in the channel's history, but one that seems to creep into every review.

Participation television has, of course, led to the recent 0898gate. The fifth channel can take more than a little blame for this; they commissioned Brainteaser from Endemol in August 2002, a programme entirely financed by the players at home calling in. It was even cheaper to make than 100%, because the cost to Channel 5 was the grand non-total of £0 per hour. Endemol shouldered all the financial risk, C5 could just sell advertising and be done with it. Brainteaser begat Memory Bank, enough interaction to allow Endemol to set up its own studios in Bristol, and eventually to In the Grid, the less-viewed of two guessing games currently made there.

Minority shareholders RTL became majority shareholders in 2002, changed the channel's on-screen name to "five", and proceeded to let almost all the game shows slip off the schedules. For much of the last three years, all this column has had to chew on is Brainteaser, filler such as Double Cross, and a slew of knock-off reality shows. The Farm grabbed some headlines over a famous incident involving a pig, Britain's Worst Driver did exactly what it said on the tin, and Back to Reality saw various reality television contestants (from Uri Geller to Jade Goody) stuck away on yet another studio set. Last year's highlight was The All Star Talent Show, notable only for a chance meeting off-screen.

Only two shows from the last few years stand out. We never quite figured out where to place International King of Sports - was it a game show along the lines of Superstars, was it a sports event as the name suggested, was it actually a surreal comedy joke on us all? Events such as the 3m Sprint and Standing Long Jump bemused all.

And then there was 19 Keys. On his radio show, Richard Bacon has been floating the idea of a revival of this programme, only to rule it out saying that it was too complex. What's difficult about answering questions, seeing which is not the correct code to win the money, and playing the odds that way? It's a concept that fills the gap between the straight quiz of 100% and the gambling mentality we see in the various Bristol guessing games.

Channel 5 has almost slipped off our radar in recent years; this column has only given reviews to two programmes in the past three years, and let a couple more pass through a combination of not finding out about them before they aired, and not being motivated to see them. (A programme about supermodels? We'd rather stare at our old Airfix kit for an hour.) RTL appears to have made a decision to concentrate on imports and occasional headline-grabbing television, rather than spending a little more money on riskier ventures. We will be adding one more review to the short list, I Blame the Spice Girls comes under the microscope next week.

The March Of Technology

As regular readers - or anyone who hasn't been living under a rock for the past month - will be aware, there has been a growing scandal about the proliferation of misadministered premium-rate phone lines. Scandals such as unfair quiz questions, votes lost down the back of the sofa, and broadcasters inventing winners from people already in the studio threaten to make the concept of participation television unviable.

Perhaps some new technical advances can save the genre from the disaster of 0898gate. We were interested to read last week about the latest product from French company Patinperche. Their product, the TV Port, might just save the television companies from their own regulatory nonsense, albeit by introducing a new means of communication. Our first thought was that this was a load of nonsense, and it'll never work.

"Relying on the telephone is a rather twentieth-century mechanism. Too much can go wrong - it's easy for a viewer to misdial, think he votes for Dominique, but actually casts a ballot for Jean-Marie," said Patinperche's chairman Guilliame Morue. "Our TV Port uses something far more simple, the power of the mind." The device simply transmits the thoughts of the viewer to a central processing agency, and then on to the broadcaster.

In "mental communication", as the company dubs its technology, the viewer wears a small band across the top of the head. In appearance, it's a bit like the traditional "Alice band", albeit coated in plastic, and with a four-inch aerial sticking up from one ear. The device is reasonably lightweight; the prototypes weigh about 100g, a figure that could halve by the official product launch in two years' time. No wires are required - the TV Port uses the kinetic energy of a moving head, and transmits securely to a base station.

Like any new technology, the TV Port began life as something completely different. The inventor - psychology researcher Nina Maquereau - originally designed it as a bolt-on to an automatic drinks vending machine. She didn't want to push the buttons and wait for her hot coffee, just think about doing so, stroll over to the machine, and pick up the cup. Mme. Maquereau used the device for other people in her office, and she credits her colleagues with the idea to use it as a mass communication technology.

"For the viewer, there are advantages," says M. Morue. "He has to make a conscious decision to transmit his thoughts to the broadcaster, but there is no need to pick up the phone. There is no middle man." But surely there is, the local base stations M. Morue mentioned earlier. Doesn't Patinperche act as the middleman?

Oddly, Guilliame Morue found his English deserting him at this point, and handed the interview over to one of his employees, Erin Rougier. "Yes, our network does take thoughts from the viewer to the broadcaster. They are encrypted, of course, and we think they're completely unhackable. We think it, so it is. Descartes, don't you know." Good company motto, there, but rather evading the question.

Our point is that we're just exchanging one middleman - whether it's BT, Eckoh Communications, Very Dodgy Tel - for another one, Patinperche. There was a distinct silence on that point, one that remained when we mused that the system was still subject to abuse by broadcasters neglecting to include all the available information. And how does the company make its money, exactly. This one was fielded by their finance person, Bjorn Esterdae. "We sell the headsets, perhaps €200 euro (£140) each, and then we charge people a cent or two (1p) per thought." By this point, we were really beginning to realise that this company was doing nothing more than replicating the telephone.

Leery of scams, we reckon there's something more than a little fishy about this idea. Move on, people, there's no new technology to see here. It could be that we're completely wrong, and the TV Port really will revolutionise viewer-broadcaster interaction. Only time will tell. For now, we're sticking to our initial thoughts.

University Challenge

Quarter-final: Aberystwyth v Warwick

The full quarter-final draw is as follows:

  • Manchester beat Wadham Oxford
  • Durham bt Edinburgh
  • UCL bt York
  • Aberystwyth v Warwick

Aber have two ten-point wins to their name, and include a player from Leamington Spa, the nearest town of any importance to Warwick. That side from the University named after that town (though located in an Arctic field just outside Coventry) rode its luck to beat UEA in the last second-round match.

For the first time in the quarter-finals, Thumper's opening monologue is allowed to be completed, and no-one gets the question hidden therein. Though Aberystwyth gets the first set of bonuses, on triple-letters, Warwick gets three starters before the first visual round, Name That Explorer. Warwick's lead is 60-25.

Missignals are the order of the day in the second stanza, including a suggestion that part of a church is called the "poop". Remembering Monty Python's famous Larch sketch gives Aberystwyth the lead, but neither side is really pushing their advantage forward. Thumper is, again, exceptionally generous here:

Q: Its installations featuring in ceremonies to mark the 90th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme in 2006, for what do the letters CWGC stand?
Warwick, Harold Wyber: Commonwealth .. War Graves?
Thumper: ...Commission, is correct, yes.

That's twice in a row that Warwick has had a very lucky break; the completion was not at all obvious, and Warwick picks up the full 15 from the bonuses. The audio round is on Musical Overtures, and Warwick's lead is up to 90-65.

This week's "What Number are We Thinking Of" is five. There's not a huge amount to write home about in the third stanza, either, unless we count Warwick's invention of the new Australian province, the Northwest Province. Not even the Canadians have one of those! The visual round is on countries in Central Asia, and Warwick's lead is up to 130-80.

It doesn't last, as Aber pulls it back to 35, only to fall further back. Even accounting for the dubious starter earlier, it looks as though Warwick will just about do enough to win on their own merits. Neither side has particularly impressed, and the shrieks from the audience whenever Warwick gets anything right are painful. The final score is Warwick 165, Aberystwyth 130. The errant starter didn't directly swing the result, but it does leave a sour taste in the mouth.

The team captains were the best buzzers - Daisy Christodoulou for Warwick had six starters and 75 points, Josephine Nevill for Aberystwyth had four starters and 57. Warwick made 16/34 starters with five missignals, Aber ended on 12/24 with two errors.

The semi-final draw is as follows:

  • Manchester v Durham
  • UCL v Warwick

This Week And Next

This week's OFCOM bulletin dealt with two complaints against Quiz Call. One invited viewers to complete a list of things found in Australia. The clue was "ALICE *******", seven asterisks there, as the presenter pointed out. The answer they were looking for was "Alice Springs Camel Cup". Obviously. OFCOM said, "The clue on screen clearly indicated that the correct answer was 'Alice' followed by a single seven letter word. Most viewers would have therefore called to provide the specific answer for which the clue had been given, believing it be easy. The broadcaster's 'correct' answer was almost impossible for callers to have considered, given the clue that was screened. The competition was not conducted fairly."

The other complaint was against the channel's "Piggy Bank" puzzle - it's one of the Guess A Number puzzles. Six weeks ago, OFCOM found that Quiz Call classed this as a "difficult" game. And one described by the presenter as "very, very easy". Again, this wasn't a fair competition.

Greg Dyke, the former BBC director general, said that it was wrong to make Star Ac while Pop Idol was already on the other side. It's not the commission per se, it's the way the second series was almost a clear knock-off of Pop Idle, only with competent performers.

Last year, Fox cancelled The Rich List after airing one episode. ITV has now done better, and cancelled the show after showing precisely none.

To the surprise of no-one, the final of Dancing on Ice was the most watched game show in the week to 18 March, pulling in 10.05 million viewers, though almost a million deserted for the second part of the transmission. Friday night's Comic Relief show took 9.75m between 7 and 10, CR Apprentice had 6.7m the previous night, and Thursday's CR Star Ac was seen by 6.45m. A Song For Europe had 5.75m, and beat Harry Hill (5.55m). Masterchef Goes Large delivered one of BBC2's biggest audiences of the year, 5.25m tuned in to see the champion crowned on Thursday night. Elsewhere, Link had 3.15m, UC 3.05m, Eggheads 2.4m, and Deal 3m.

Dancing on Ice also headed the digital tier's figures, 620,000 seeing the ITV2 coverage, and that ranks ahead of Pop Idle US (445,000 opposite Comic Relief). CR Star Ac on Three had 435,000 on Monday night, Deal 255,000 on Monday, Jungle Run 125,000. Challenge's top score was 100,000 for Thursday evening's Family Fortunes.

Dermot O'Leary has signed as the new host of The X Factor. Right host, wrong show. Last week's Sunday Mirror discussed a scam involving internet-connected "phone-a-friends" on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Producers Two-Way Traffic (who bought Celador last year) are "investigating" some cases. Two notes: one, this sort of thing has been rumoured for at least four years, since the original Millionaire fraud trial. And two, consistency demands prosecutions, or at least a trial under civil law, if and only if there is evidence to back these claims.

Coming up next week: Great British Menu comes back for a second series (BBC2, 6.30 weeknights). Les Dennis hosts TV Now and Then (UK Gold, 9.30 Thursday). And ITV has its bright new idea for a Saturday night, a talent show for musical performers. How original.

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