Weaver's Week 2001-08-07

Weaver's Week Index

7th August

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


And on Day 65, there were no game shows left.

Well, that's a fib. Channel 5 shifted THE DESERT FORGES to 10am, something I only found out at 3pm. Bah. There was FRIENDS LIKE THESE, our Davina fix on OBLIVIOUS, Pip Gopherman and a contestant prepared to guess at answers on the always fab WINNING LINES. But a Robbie Williams concert playing on E4, not Dean strumming his plectrum. And no wondering what format was next to feature on ITV.

It left me pondering the question: why did BIG BROTHER catch the public imagination, and SURVIVOR so spectacularly didn't?

Let's take the easy one first. Big Brother, a bit like Seinfeld, is fundamentally a show about nothing. Characters wake up, characters are filmed doing strange and wacky things at the behest of a scriptwriter, characters go to sleep. Any change in these characters will come slowly, spread over days and weeks. The show is a bit like a security blanket: you know roughly what you're going to get, even if you don't know the exact details. And if you like what you expect, you'll watch over and over. Channel 4 has made a living out of showing almost the exact same show almost every teatime since day one.

From where did Survivor's troubles come? The difference in this analysis is that Survivor's challenges were clearly marked as such, and carried so much weight in the game that they became the only focus of attention. Winning meant everything; defeat was unthinkable. It was a show about something. In contrast, Big Brother's contestants faced tasks that were important, but weren't going to be the sole criterion of judgement. Dean was displeased when one task turned out to involve a real dog, but he calmed down quickly; the Blue team were aghast when they lost the opening immunity challenge, and brooded on it for a month afterwards.

The importance attached to the challenges is perhaps the smallest factor that worked against Survivor, though. Far more important was the editing of the programme. Many people have commented that the first few shows were slow to the point of tedium. Whether by design or accident, almost nothing happened in the crucial first half hour of the opening show. While there are plenty of examples of shows that start slowly and build to a crescendo - Millionaire is a great example - they do get moving right from the opening. I noticed that the later shows spent much longer on the challenges, and less time on the contestants arguing. Whether this was a reflection of how the team's time was spent, or a decision by senior producer Nigel Lythgoe, I don't know.

On a related point, it seems that something has been lost in transition across the Atlantic. Five minutes of commercials, to be exact. While Survivor (US) runs for about 44 minutes without commercials, the UK version runs around 49 minutes. 10% more show has to be filled with something, and usually that seemed to be gossip and chitchat, not action.

It may sound obvious, but for any character-based show to work, you have to get to know the characters. This was another area where BB excelled, and Survivor flopped. The reason is all about timing. Discounting the introductions, and the interview shows, Survivor ran just 16 hours on ITV. Discounting highlights and introductions, Big Brother threw off Penny just over 7 hours into the C4 series. The Survivor island had already dwindled from sixteen to nine. We hardly had time to get to know most of these people, and it felt that just as we were getting to know someone, they took the high road out. I remarked a few times that we seemed to hear a name come to the fore, only to see them go at the end of that show.

Just before the final aired, Lythgoe was quoted in the press complaining that Survivor had not received enough promotion. If this is an accurate quote, it strikes me as astounding poppycock. As I noted at the time, there was saturation promotion of the show in the weeks leading up to air. The opening shows didn't live up to the hype - I don't think anything could - and that left a lingering question mark over the remainder of the series. Lythgoe may have suggested he got the wrong sort of promotion, which feels more accurate.

But the biggest problem is with the format itself. Contestants vote amongst themselves for who should lose. They have a vested interest in removing the worst competition to themselves. Witness how the strongest players on each team were removed in the opening shows, and how makeweights like Adrian (finished 11th) and Jackie (2nd) were carried far further than they objectively deserved. There was a lot of truth behind JJ's observation that the seven who said hello and goodbye in last week's final were the best survivors. There's a similar phenomenon in The Weakest Link - it's not the strongest link that regularly wins, but one stronger than most but weaker than a few.

Ultimately, the format lends itself to an objectively screwy result. For whatever reason, the British public doesn't like screwy results, or even the prospect of a screwy result. By my analysis, Charlotte should have been relegated to the walk-on parts of the first nine out. Jackie was perhaps strong enough to appear on the jury, but only just. The public can't complain that the Big Brother result is screwy, because they voted for it. BB and Millionaire appear democratic; Survivor appears elitist. Perhaps this explains why the populist press so prefer BB and WWTBAM.

The dislike of results that appear unfair means the producers have a difficult job making a fractured format appear complete. Add in misplaced publicity, negative press coverage, and an opening show that bombs, and the job is as good as impossible.

In the final analysis, I can only fault Lythgoe for the slack pace of the opening episodes, and perhaps for approving the pre-launch blitz. The amazingly bad scheduling, and problems with the game itself conspired to ruin everything else.

Though I regularly took the mickey out of Survivor, that was partly from disappointment that the show didn't match its massive build-up. Missing two episodes in the middle also meant that I didn't get to know the remaining contestants as well as I might.

I suppose the question is: will I be watching the next series? Almost certainly, and not out of a sense of duty for this column. Will I be summarising it here? Perhaps. Hopefully to spot how much it has improved with time.


Viewing figures for the one-hour Big Brother final are in, and at 7.5 million / 46% they're almost equal to the two-hour Survivor's 7.7 million / 38%. E4 won an all-time best share of 4.4% in multi-channel homes over Friday. Grand total of 15.5m votes, 7.2m in the last week, 1.4 million in the last two hours. There will be the highlights video, and book. Last year's final attracted 9.5m / 49%.

For the avoidance of doubt, the showbiz careers of all Big Brother (and Survivor) contestants will be left to newspapers and magazines for a few months, unless they are of particular relevance to this column.

Also for the record, women have won eight Big Brothers in Europe. Thanks to everyone who wrote to correct this.


The LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS were regulars just after the revival. Keble, Keele, Pembroke Oxford, and Warwick fell to the LSE in 95-6, before they lost to Imperial London in the final. They lost to Newnham Cambridge in the first round the following year, but beat St John's Oxford, Oxford Brookes and Queen's Belfast before falling to Magdalen Oxford in the semis in 97-8.

BRISTOL beat Robert Gordon Aberdeen before losing to Open in 94-5; beat Manchester, and de Montfort before losing to Bangor in 98-9; lost to Sheffield Hallam, came back as a highest-scoring loser, beat Newnham Cambridge before losing to St John's Oxford in the quarters last year.

LSE gets the first starter, and Bristol incurs a penalty on the next one. But Bristol scores 75 without reply, only to fall back through incorrect interruptions, and LSE has the lead after the music round. They soon lose it, but Bristol never pulls away.

Bristol wins, 180-140, but only gets 17 of 33 bonuses; the LSE scores 10/18. Bristol's winning score is 5 points lower than Hull's losing score last week. A low-key match, without anything to put in the Bronze Dish Of Things That Amazed Paxo.


Though BBC2 airs a lot of the World Athletics championships next week, UC will go out at its regular time. The athletics does mean that Anne Robinson will only insult Americans on Weds, Thurs, Fri.

Desert Forges moves permanently to 10am Saturday; the Best of Banzai gets a repeat on 4 at 9:30 that night.

Those who didn't see it on local ITV stations earlier this year can catch King Of The Castle on Challenge TV from Monday. 9:30 am and 9:30 pm.

Fourteen people tackle psychological, emotional, and physical challenges in difficult terrains. The Heat Is On, BBC1 8pm Tuesday.

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