Weaver's Week 2008-12-21

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"Charles and Duckface."


The Last Millionaire

BBC3, 9pm Wednesday

We've long had a bit of a problem with business-related shows. It's probably because they preach red-blooded devil-take-the-weakest capitalism as the only method of running affairs, and completely overlook more egalitarian ways of getting things done. The Apprentice (BBC, 2005-) continues to annoy us more than is healthy, Natural Born Dealers from September tried and failed, and Tycoon (ITV, 2007) is only memorable for being such a complete feedback.

This autumn, BBC3 has had a short series on economics. Rather than get a media performer like Tim Harford to explain the concept in lectures (we're thinking of something interactive and lively, along the lines of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures), the channel preferred to explore the topic by examples. One example took twelve people who have made oodles of money, and set them challenges to find out who was the worst at this challenge. Just for a change, the show didn't seek out the best performer, wasn't looking for the greatest business mind. No, this series sought out failure, looked for people who couldn't manage their way out of a wet paper bag.

The contestants were twelve people who had all gathered huge amounts of moolah. They were seriously rich, and they had become seriously rich through selling stuff – usually, ideas and prototypes for how other people could make somewhat less substantial amounts of money. According to the voiceover, these rich people enjoy a five-star lifestyle, for which the word "swish" is insufficient, and we're left with terms like "lavish".

For this show, none of that applies. The dozen rich people are stripped of their trappings, and told to live in a backpacker's hostel. Instantly, large parts of the BBC3 audience can appreciate what's going on. Backpacker hostels traditionally charge a few pounds a night, and they're little more than a bed and (shared) toilet facilities. The producers have already brought down one barrier between audience and competitor.

The competitors then divide themselves into teams of two. They're given a week's average wage in their city as seed money, they're given a black book of contacts and useful people, they're given basic tourist information, a mobile phone with limited credit, and they're given a theme around which their business should be based. Here, the show tends to fall down a little, as the most tenuous connection is acceptable to the producers. The theme's tourism? Run seminars targeted at businesses interacting with tourists. Theme of the week is youth? Run seminars targeted at businesses run by young people. The content can be the same, only the audience changes.

That's one problem with the format. Another possible problem is that we don't see the teams discussing their ideas. If we're particularly unlucky, the participants could all have exactly the same commercial idea, follow exactly the same path, and lead to six views of exactly the same thing. Mercifully, the contestants are able to come up with different ideas, sometimes radically different, and this danger didn't affect the finished programme.

Anyway, we've got these people we've never met, in pairs they've made themselves, and the first episode is a little confusing. It could perhaps have done with occasional captions reminding us of the participants and their idea: "Pinky and Perky – pig traders", that kind of thing. By the third show, these would have become overkill, for not only did viewers become accustomed to the competitors, there were fewer to follow.

As is traditional, the number of competitors reduced week-by-week. In a new twist, the players leaving each week were the best performers, the ones who had made the most money in their week on the road. True, they didn't get to travel to the next city, but they were allowed to take all the money made by each team, sometimes as much as £1500. The winning team went home, and it became traditional for them to dip into their winnings and spend a night in a decent hotel, one with a restaurant, a bar, and en-suite bathroom. The remaining contestants moved on, until the final week, when the last two were pitted against each other.

We expected the voice-over script to be awed by the contestants, but found the tone to be a little fawning in parts, particularly as at least two of the competitors got their gains from very large strokes of luck. The constant repetition that the competitors had left expensive lifestyles for this squalor was also distracting. It's a slight shame that we didn't get to see more of the cities – we know from experience that Berlin has some wonderfully attractive parts, not that we got to see it.

But was the show any good? We watched two-and-a-half episodes, which was enough to form a proper opinion. We didn't particularly want to watch any more, but nor did we want to stab the participants through the windpipe. Or, indeed, inflict any form of fatal violence on them, as we do for The Apprentice. No, we'll reserve that for the BBC Press Office, who revealed the loser to us at the start of December, thus rendering the last couple of episodes entirely pointless.

Readers in the UK who wish to see the series can view all six episodes on the BBC website, or through cable television, until 31 December.

University Challenge

Second round, match 5: Lincoln Oxford v St Andrews

Lincoln Oxford beat eventual repechage winners St John's Cambridge at the start of September; five weeks later, St Andrews knocked off Exeter Oxford with a barnstorming second-half performance. There's one substitution on the St Andrews side, a straight swap in seat one.

We'll begin with Word of the Week, "lesson". Lincoln know about the birthdates of British prime ministers, but St Andrews finds a set of bonuses on Anthony Minghella beyond them. Probably expecting a reference to his work on Grange Hill. The teams answer "1927" and "1929" for a starter question asking for the year 1928, and Lincoln prove they do know something about quarks, which will give them a good advantage in Only Connect. We don't understand the word puzzle of the week; neither does St Andrews. The first visual round is on blueprints on vessels from science-fiction films, and Lincoln has a strong lead, 85-20.

It's still eighteen minutes until Victoria Coren asks the 'cellist to get on with it, but every member of the Lincoln side has already answered one starter correctly. Not to rub it in, but St Andrews hasn't correctly answered a single bonus just yet, an oversight they soon rectify. The audio round follows that old quiz advice: it's always Tchaikovsky, except when it's the theme to Just a Minute. Lincoln's lead is holding steady at 135-50.

The last member of St Andrews picks up their starter straight afterwards, a remarkable achievement in barely half the contest. Lincoln proves their worth on French phrases in common usage, St Andrews demonstrate that no-one gives a monkey's about the acronyms for lighting systems. The game's foundering on the rocks of indifference when we reach the final visual round, on royal wives (and Prince Albert). Lincoln has a commanding lead, 205-95.

Five minutes to play, and Lincoln's knowledge of the G8 in alphabetical order, and postcodes for London landmarks, has given them a surely unassailable lead. Thumper's clearly breaking the speed limit in the final set of questions, though "Paris on the Potomac" as a description of the District of Colombia? Must be taking its name from the Texas town. Which planet would be mapped by an ariographer? Aries, so Mars. The gong comes as a small relief: Lincoln have won, 280-120, though Thumper is surprised that the score looked quite so one-sided.

It was the bonuses that let St Andrews down: they converted only 8/27 with two missignals. Alexis Smith led with four starters. For Lincoln Oxford, a bonus conversion rate of 24/45, with captain Ashley Walters and Andrew Mendelblat both getting five starters right.

Second round, match 6: City v Brighton

Readers are warned that this review contains an excruciating pun.

City defeated Hull in the season opener back in July, when the top temperature here was 17 degrees. Brighton overcame Southampton in mid-September, when the top temperature was also 17 degrees. Both teams won convincingly, 230-140 and 190-135 respectively against the two teams to just miss the play-offs. Tonight, with the temperature a mere 13 degrees C, which one will progress?

City get the Word of the Week, "congress", and Brighton the Second Word of the Week, "spruce". We do hope they're not just going to ask Thumper to read out the dictionary. And they're not; he asks after the "CC" of climate change, but that's a panel-beater. The teams do remember who disputed calculus with Newton, but questions about magnetic inductance go right over City's head. Two lawyers and no scientists, that's their line-up. The first visual round is on flags of international bodies – initially, the Commonwealth of Independent States, another panel-beater, which leaves the teams on 45-10.

Thumper gets rather agitated as starters that are a spoonerism, a simple arithmetic problem, tributes to Ian Fleming, and one on Assyria are all dropped. Indeed, he gets so flustered that he forgets to take the picture bonuses, and that's not happened in a long time. They eventually go to Brighton, and they're flags of countries that always give 12 points to Russia. Er, that are members of the CIS, Moldova gives its bouquet to Romania. Brighton briefly pulls to within five points, but then the last City player gets his starter to pull further away. The audio round, versions of "Johnny B Goode", is yet another panel-beater, and City's lead is 70-50. It's anyone's game!

And the bonuses prove it, Brighton takes the lead with the other versions, then City regains supremacy with the very next starter. It seems that all eight players reach for their buzzers at a particular point of the definition of "flush", the race is won by City's Henry Ellis. His side takes more starters, and one bonus from each. One question asks after the number derived from the square root of a non-square number. It reminds us of what jealous mathematicians might say, "Oi! You lookin' at my surd?!"

Ouch. Sorry. That's not so much worse than tonight's game: nine starters have been dropped by the second picture round (paintings by Romantic artists), it's only the second set of bonuses correct in its entirety, and City's lead is 140-90. They go to town on bonuses about Lord Beaverbrook, Brighton ensure every player has a starter right, and we'll take improbable starter of the week:

Q: In a game of tiddlywinks, if red pots out first, then blue pots before yellow and green, what is the score?

Not zero, not six, Thumper assures us it's seven, and asks what the world is coming to. There's an explanatory article at H2G2, plus realisation that blue and red are one team, green and yellow another. The game finishes, rather aptly, with yet another dropped starter, and City has won by a slightly flattering 185-115.

Henry Ellis had eight starters for City, the side made 17/36 bonuses and four missignals. Jolyon Dales took four starters on the Brighton side, 10/21 bonuses and one missignal there.

Next match (5 Jan): Sheffield v Exeter

More Telephone Trouble

The troubles of Strictly Come Dancing continued last week-end, with a voting fiasco that had us searching through the end credits for the name Kathleen Harris.

During last week's episode, three contenders remained in the competition, with the bottom two returning to face elimination. Two of the competitors tied for first place on the judge's vote. Under the rules of Strictly, that meant they both picked up joint first place, leaving the third player on three points. There was a televote, but anyone who could count to five quickly worked out that the person bottom of the judges' poll couldn't finish first. If he won the televote, his score would be 1+3=4, with the others finishing on 3+2=5 and 3+1=4.

The error in this case was to factor in the judges' opinion at its usual 50%. Had the televote points been doubled, the best result would have been 1+6=7 against 3+4=7 and 3+2=5, and the loser would have been safe because the public has the casting vote. The error was also to allow ties in the voting: it would be possible to look at the individual scores cast by the judges, and give the advantage to whoever had the most 12s, then 10s, and so on. It's how they broke most ties in this year's Eurovision Dance Contest. Ultimately, the error was allowing the judges to bully John Sergeant off the show, and the public for keeping him on the programme.

The BBC claimed that this event is highly improbable, a claim that sent mathematicians up and down the country scurrying for their computers and spreadsheets. We modelled each judge's individual vote, and our back-of-the-envelope doodling suggests there's a 29% chance of a two-way tie somewhere in the process, and a 15.5% chance of a two-way tie for first place. Contributors to the Open University's More or Less programme modelled the judges' total votes, and came up with a slightly smaller probability. Whatever the exact mathematics, there's a decent probability of a tie. It's something the producers really should have spotted beforehand, and had a contingency plan.

In the event, the BBC adopted the worst possible solution: it'll carry votes cast for the semi-final over to the final. Never mind that numerate fans of the loser will not have voted because they knew he couldn't win. Never mind that people were voting for the performance on the night, not for the performance to win the competition. It's clear that the BBC hadn't fully thought its procedures through, and that does leave a rather sour taste in the mouth. Critics can argue that it's worse than that: by mixing the votes from two weeks' performances without explaining itself beforehand, the BBC has undermined the credibility of Strictly as a fair public vote.

Strictly Come Dancing should be a simple Saturday night entertainment, something a bit different from the tuneless caterwauling on the other side. This year, there's enough of a stink for it to not be entertaining any more. Especially the ten minutes of trailers they bunged out afterwards, so as to fill up some time. Couldn't they have grabbed an emergency cut of Coast from the BBC2 server, or raided BBC4 for London to Brighton in Four Minutes?

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Just when we thought we'd reached the end of the 0898 blowback, along comes another bit. The BBC has been fined £25,000 for faking competition callers into GLR's Tony Blackburn Show during late 2005 and throughout 2006; and £70,000 for faking competition callers on Radio 2's Dermot O'Leary Show from June to December 2006. In both cases, programmes were pre-recorded, listeners were invited to call and take part in competitions, but the winners had already been determined because the shows were taped. OFCOM was particularly annoyed at having to revisit this matter, having previously considered two tranches of BBC failings relating to phone-in contests. See also: the raft of adjudications in July.

The BBC's also been found in breach of OFCOM's codes for an incident on The Tom Robinson Show in September 2006, when a band offered tickets in an unplanned competition. No-one entered, and the producer arranged for a made-up name to be announced as the winner. The Beeb was found innocent of various phone-in vote problems, for Strictly Come Dancing, Sports Personality of the Year, Eurovision, I'd Do Anything, and Last Choir Standing. OFCOM also approved the BBC's use of mock-up Sports Personality of the Year trophies for last year's event, when the winner was in Nevada. The real trophy was on the table in Solihull.

Mercury Radio has been fined £20,000 after broadcasting GCap's corrupt Secret Sound competition. Unlike the BBC deceptions, GCap quite deliberately acted to prolong the competition and gain more revenue. Mercury's offence was to take GCap at its word, and not introduce its own checks to ensure the competition was honest. OFCOM was unable to demonstrate that any Mercury listeners were interested in the competition, or had entered. OFCOM was also annoyed that Mercury hadn't apologised to its listeners; we find this somewhat unfair, as Mercury knew that there was a regulatory case in progress against it, and an apology could easily be used as an admission of culpability.

This Week And Next

Ratings for the week to 7 December are in, with dips for both Saturday night shows. X Factor results were seen by 10.6m, and Strictlys performances by 9.75m. I'm a Celebritys final edition attracted 9.8m, Celeb Coming Out had 6.35m, and Millionaire took 4.75m. Dancing on Two was seen by 3.2m on Monday, with 2.9m for University Challenge, and 2.65m for Deal or No Deal. The final of Are You an Egghead? was seen by 1.95m.

2.1 million viewers for the Xtra Factor results show. That's the second highest rating in ITV2's history, behind only The Bionic Woman, and we all remember what a success that was. Celeb's follow-up show on Friday night had 815,000 glued to their sets, and More4's Come Dine With Me attracted 640,000 on Sunday night. Good to see Only Connect back in the BBC4 top ten, 260,000 there; on CBBC, Gimme a Break had 250,000.

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Next week, and next week, and next week. Christmas week has the final of Only Connect (BBC4, Monday 8.30) and only the second new QI of the year (BBC1, Monday 9pm). The Christmas Day highlights are Maestro (BBC2, 6pm), Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1, 7pm) and Dancing on Ice (ITV, 8pm), and there's a 1973 edition of The Generation Game (BBC2, 10.40 Boxing Day).

New Year's Week has University Challenge Night (Saturday) and Shooting Stars 90 Minutes (Tuesday) both on BBC2. Celebrity Mastermind runs on BBC1 Sunday to Thursday, and on S4C on Tuesday, while World's Strongest Man runs on Channel 5 from Sunday. And there's the welcome return of The Krypton Factor (ITV, 7.30 New Year's Day).

As we won't be publishing in the first week of January, here are the highlights for that week. Lloyd Webber does the Eurovision Song Contest (BBC1, 7.10 Sat 3 Jan), Richard Hammond does Total Wipeout (BBC1, 6.10 Sat) and Blast Lab (BBC2, 8.30am Sat), and BBC2 asks Who Wants to be a Superhero? (9am Sat). Celebrity Big Brother begins on 2 January and runs all month.

Complete television listings for the next three weeks are available in the TV Guide. We shall be back amongst you next Sunday, with the Week of the Year for 2008. Until then, we wish our correspondents, contributors, and readers the compliments of the season.

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