Weaver's Week 2007-09-30

Weaver's Week Index


Escape for Some

"You always give your answers as though they were stupid questions! They're quite difficult!"

This Is Unbelievable!!! And Highlights Exactly What We Are Doing

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ICSTIS has given Opera Telecom its maximum possible fine, a quarter of a million pounds, for consistently deceiving the public over their chances of winning GMTV quizzes. Had there been no law limiting the fine, it could well have been much larger.

The premium-rate phone line regulator found that 18.6 million calls, made over two years, stood no chance of winning. Though lines to the competitions closed at 9am, the selection of possible winners was made shortly after 8am, ensuring that over half the callers were never in it to win it. A technical failure in February meant that all callers wasted their money for 11 days running. Opera didn't tell GMTV about this matter; ICSTIS said that this was an example of Opera's shoddy standards.

The dodgy practice of selecting winners early was brought to the attention of Opera's sales manager Mark Nuttall back in 2003 shortly after Opera began to run contests. Rather than object to the deception, Mr. Nuttall only criticised the inclusion of email headers that might expose the lies. ICSTIS critised Opera's founder, Gary Corbett, who had been copied into some of the emails, but claimed not to have read them, saying that he had been "reckless" in his behaviour.

GMTV has been fined £2,000,000 for its failure to uphold the ITC and OFCOM codes for broadcasters. OFCOM found there was a further fraud taking place; where competitions closed at 9am, fifteen people were chosen at 8.30, and a further five were picked at 9am. This was unfair to late callers, and similar to a fix used in Deal or No Deal's legalised telephone lottery until this summer.

Though premium-rate contests made up over a third of GMTV's profits, there was no audit of Opera's procedures, and no assessment of the risks associated with these contests. OFCOM concluded that this was irresponsible and negligent, and that GMTV had put profit ahead of fairness.

Escape from Scorpion Island

RDF Media for BBC1 / CBBC / BBC2, 3-21 September

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Over the years, this column has had one simple rule about children's television. We treat it exactly the same as grown-up television. There are no let-offs for the young audience, no criticism just because the audience isn't old enough to go out and not vote. We're giving no quarter just because it's television for children. Lest we forget: 5pm may be a quiet hour for grown-ups, but for ten-year-old viewers, it's prime time.

All of this brings us to Escape From Scorpion Island. It's by far the most ambitious game show ever commissioned by a children's department; indeed, with the possible exception of The Search, it's the most ambitious show we've seen this year. Ten young people are taken to Scorpion Island, a mysterious place somewhere in the tropics. Viewers were never explicitly told where Scorpion Island was, but there was enough circumstantial evidence to put it somewhere in or near the Azores.

The contestants' arrival was spectacular in the extreme – one by one, they abseiled out of a helicopter into the sea, onto a raft, and then ashore to their camp on the beach. The contestants – five young ladies, five young gentlemen, mostly aged 12 and 13 – came from all over the country. Each day fell into two parts: the camp challenge, with the possibility of a treat if it was completed successfully; and the island challenge, which would affect the progression of the game. There is an obvious comparison with ITV's hit reality show Survivor, which also stuck people on a tropical island and set them challenges for reward and progression.

This review will follow the lead of the televised programmes, and concentrate on the island challenges. These were always revealed at the island cauldron, a simple wooden contraption, three concentric circles around a central flaming torch, with bits that slide to reveal first the challenge's name, and then two people who would be playing it. In the first week, the named people got to choose their own playing partners, and success ensured that they would return to the camp on the beach.

Failure meant they might not be going back. On the first day, one contestant was extracted from the beach camp by a mechanism we didn't fully understand, and established a breakaway camp in the trees. On the second day, that contestant chose one of the contestants from the losing team to join her tree camp; three more contestants moved from beach to tree over the course of the first week.

At the end of week one, the teams were set. The five players left on the beach became the Sting team; the five who had moved over to the trees became the Claw team. In the second week, the island challenges were for advantages – reducing the time available to the opposition, allowing a repeat in a subsequent island challenge, that sort of thing. In addition to the player nominated by the cauldron, the opposing team got to choose the opposition's second player. These advantages couldn't be played until the third week, when each island challenge won translates into a one-minute head-start in the final challenge, the ascent of a tall mountain. We'll come back to this final challenge at the end.

Dare we say it, that makes for a very good 15-episode show format without any eliminations. Survivor was a different show, but by removing the need for backstabbing and alliances and concentrating on the actual games, it makes for an entirely decent programme. It wouldn't surprise us to find this format, or one substantially similar, turn up on television for grown-ups in the near future. Who knows, it might be another prime-time excursion for Reggie Yates and Caroline Flack, who brought just the right sort of bonhomie to the production.

However, the show's execution was not as solid as the concept. While there is a place for action replays, we find slow-motion shots distracting enough when used on occasion. When almost half the challenge is made up of these arty shots, we lose the thread of the challenge because we have to concentrate so hard on the camera-work.

That's a small problem: far more irritating was the reference to "the island" doing this, that, and the other. It quickly became clear that "the island" was a catch-all name for whatever arbitrary rule the producers had come up with. Again, we wouldn't have minded so much if it weren't for the sheer number of twists.

Readers may have experienced a comparable problem for themselves while driving along a minor road, trying to look at the scenery. Sometimes, the road is so full of twists and turns that the journey becomes a chore rather than a pleasure, even if someone else is driving. Suddenly turning a two-player island challenge into a four-player one was an excusable diversion tactic; swapping half of the players between teams at the end of the second week was a method to scatter confusion amongst viewers and players alike. For much of the time, we found ourselves concentrating on the twists rather than the game, and that is just wrong.

The final challenge was an ascent of the island's mountain. First the teams had a rather pointless task, to cross a high ravine by walking on ropes, collecting flags as they went. Then, an ascent up a steep slope, something like one-in-three. They needed ropes, and ladders were provided over the steepest sections. Oh, and the entire team was on a rope with not much distance between them. It's a challenge that must have taken the best part of an hour to complete, and what is a two-minute head start in such a marathon?

The last challenge reminded us of the wall climb from the UK edition of Simply the Best a few years ago – all of the previous work was for a very small advantage in the final round. Even worse, the event completely failed as a television spectacle, as one of the teams lost two members to illness and injury before they had really begun to climb the rock-face. The other team only had to complete the ascent to claim a victory.

Ascending the mountain was a tremendous achievement in itself, and the remaining members of the second team showed remarkable spirit to complete their climb. But it was a pitiful way for the series to end, not with a bang, not even with a whimper, just with a very damp phut. Had the three weeks of competition been for this anticlimax?

As befits such a high-profile, high-concept, and (we assume) high-cost series, CBBC mined it for all it was worth. A daily show on BBC1 was followed by a behind-the-scenes programme on CBBC – that was the only place where the rewards were seen – and a recap programme the following morning on BBC2. There was only about 35 minutes of footage between the three programmes, and the two on terrestrial television were just about interchangeable.

Will there be a second series? Under normal circumstances, we would suggest that it's possible, no more. Escape From Scorpion Island was expensive, demanded a lot of attention from all involved – including the show's viewers – and had a lot of ragged edges that would need to be addressed before renewal. If we were the CBBC controller, we would invite the producers to submit changes they would make, and decide then. Or invite them to shoot a series for transmission on a little-watched channel – we hear that ITV has acres of space to fill overnight.

This appears to be a moot question, for reasons almost entirely unrelated to the production. Back in July, the BBC showed a trailer for a series in which someone was – apparently – shown leaving a room at great speed, after an argument. In fact, the footage was of that person entering the room, and had been taken prior to the discussion. In the sort of complete over-reaction that can only happen when the "someone" is "the Queen", the BBC's director general spoke in particularly high dudgeon, and said that his corporation wouldn't be commissioning any more shows from RDF.

We have no evidence to suggest that anything on Scorpion Island was faked, and must assume that all was above board. However, Mr. Thompson's revenge is a dish served cold, and his barbed sting may have cancelled the programme. We cannot determine whether CBBC would have made the same decision anyway.


Heat 12

Keith Harrison will take the Life and Career of Frank Sinatra. He is wearing a quite remarkable dark suit, one that almost seems to merge into the chair. The round ends with Strangers in the Night, and a score of 11 (3).

Jane Ann Liston tells us about the Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L Sayers. It's a fast and frantic round, ending on 14 (1).

Mark Shanahan discusses Sergei Koreolev. We don't hear about his career in space travel until the third question, which is a bit rum. The round never quite gets going, finishing on 8 (1).

Simon Smith takes Polish History 960-1696. It's a tremendously large subject, but he does it justice, finishing on 11 (1).

Mr. Shanahan discusses how Mr. Koreolev used bits of the V2 rocket to launch the Soviets into space. He finishes on 16 (4).

Mr. Harrison – who is no relation to Orville, but did make the semi-finals in 1988 – tells us how Mr. Sinatra was an emotional singer. His round ends on 19 (5).

Mr. Smith discusses how the Poles like to re-build their demolished buildings in the original style. He knows that the Germans make sausages, ending on 20 (3).

Mrs. Liston – a semi-finallist in 2004 – is a constituency case worker for an MSP, and points out that politics begins with the pothole at the end of the road. She needs seven to win, and though she can't remember the Chancellor in the early 1990s – who remembers Norman Lamont anyway – she ends on 26 (3).

University Challenge

First round, 12/14: Manchester v Newcastle

Three PhD candidates on the Manchester team; one late night poker champion and four smart sweatshirts for Newcastle. We'll start with The Conference Is More Interesting Than The Answer:

Q: A portrait award was won in 2006 by Andrew Tift for his triptych Kitty, a study of Kitty Garman, the first wife of which British artist?
Manchester: Any ideas? We need to guess a modern British artist who's getting on a bit ... and who's straight.

Ah! That's where Robert Robinson's conversational digressions got to: "Nobody would suggest going for a Peaquod", says Thumper, of a proposed name for a multi-national coffee chain. Newcastle has buzzed in on a couple of questions, but Manchester gets the first four starters, and runs up a near-perfect score. Newcastle kicks off with the first visual round, on the crests of UEFA members, but Manchester leads 95-15.

Thumper is generous to give Newcastle the next starter, about palindromes. It's worth noting that Manchester dropped just one of its first 9 bonus questions; Newcastle was correct in just one of its first nine. Does leet-speak derive from the internet or from text-messaging? Manchester says the latter, the questions say the former. Newcastle has certainly pulled back some ground in the second stanza, but Manchester gets the audio round, on punk bands of 1977, and leads 115-65.

Manchester also knows about its baking ingredients, causing Thumper to give the quote at the start of the column. Another of their bonuses requires the team to identify the train line known as "the drain", which they quickly identify as running from Waterloo to the City, but they take forever to remember the name. The second visual round is to name games from their pieces, and it's Newcastle's first and last answer of the stanza, the team ends up trailing 190-70.

All good things have to come to an end: after a run of 23 (twenty-three) bonus questions answered correctly, Manchester finally gets one wrong, only their second bonus error of the night. In all the years we've been watching the programme, we cannot remember a team scoring so consistently well for so long; perhaps the University Oxford team who ran up over 450 points in 1987 might have a run of this length.

Two for the repechage:
  • Lancaster 185
  • Liverpool 165
  • Magdalen Oxford 160
  • Birmingham 145

Three minutes to play, and Newcastle has just poked their nose to 100 points. It's not going to be enough, really; that Manchester gets the next two starters ensures we won't be seeing Newcastle and their sweatshirts again. The final score is 260-105.

Manchester's bonus conversion rate fell off a bit towards the end, but 29/36 with one missignal has to be amongst the best. Stuart Thompson has seven starters, just one more than Neil Archibald for Newcastle. Bonuses let his side down, they had 6/24 with a missignal.

Next match: St George's London v York

This Week And Next

Strictly Come Dancing's results show will move to Sunday, ostensibly so that the channel can kick-start its weak Sunday schedule. We suspect that it's to alter the format slightly, allowing the judges to determine who leaves, and to avoid any 0898-gate related scandals.

Peter Bazalgette is to leave Endemol. He's been with the company's since 1998, when Bazal Television was purchased.

A clear run for ITV in the ratings to 16 September, topped by the Saturday night trilogy of X Factor (7.25m), Antan Dec (6.75m), and Millionaire (5.25m). The final of Hell's Kitchen had 4.7m falling off the edge of their sofas. On the minor channels, University Challenge (2.9m) beat Deal (2.35m). Mock the Week managed 2.1m, Come Dine With Me was just under. Mastermind had 1.8m, almost back to the opening episode, and Take on the Takeaway secured 1.45m in the post-Eggheads slot.

X Factor rules the roost for digital viewers, with the Sunday night repeats of the main show and Fearne's Xtra Factor both taking 890,000. On More4, Come Dine With Me was seen by 265,000; over on G2, HIGNFY has its highest ratings of the year so far, 200,000. On the same channel, Full Metal Challenge scored 100,000, a thousand ahead of Challenge's top show, Sunday night Family Fortunes.

More4 marks the silver jubilee of Channel 4 during October, and begins the series in the only possible way, with the First Ever Countdown (9pm Monday). There's also a vintage episode of Whose Line is it Anyway? (11.05 Wednesday). Challenge's big new show for October is Ninja Warrior (6pm weekdays), and the BBC launches a new run of Strictly Come Dancing (6.15 Saturday).

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