Weaver's Week 2004-06-12

Weaver's Week Index

12 June 2004

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

Cramming it in - Weaver's Week

Bong! Former Radio 1 controller in hysteric game show alert. Bong! Silly answer on live national television. Bong! Millionaire phone scammer banned. And would you like fries with that?

THE CRAM (BBC2, 1900 weeknights)

As we discussed last week, the BBC has a problem with its early evening slots. Ratings banker THE SIMPSONS is coming off air, and none of the shows they've thrown into that slot have worked. TREASURE HUNT was great as a once-a-week treat in the 80s, but didn't catch the imagination when shown daily last year (review: 21 Dec 02). No one liked NO ONE LIKES A SMARTASS (2 Aug 03), and TRAITOR (14 Feb 04) was too intense for its early evening slot. Much hope rests on THE CRAM.

Matthew Bannister is the host; ten years ago, he made his name as the man who turned Radio 1 from the Smashie and Nicey station into the Emma Freud and Nicky Campbell station, and then single-handedly launched Britpop. He's since spent a few years as the BBC's director of radio, and now presents a late-night show on the corporation's news station Radio Five. In a rare piece of corporate dis- synergy, he hasn't promoted that gabfest once all week. While Matthew talks to the contestants, Mishal Husain is the real star of the show. Her grilling of the contestants rivals Magnus Magnusson's for difficulty.

The format is very simple. Four contestants are given unlimited access to newspapers, the internet, radio, and television for a day, and are told to bone up on the day's news. We reckon the question-setting stops at around 4pm, three hours before the show takes to the air. One by one, they walk into the next room, and take a quick-fire set of eighteen questions from Mishal. It may have been twenty on the first show. Five seconds to answer, each correct answer is worth a point.

The questions are tough, sometimes to the point of abtruseness. There are no softball questions like "Which former US president died today?" but require detailed knowledge: "In which building is Ronald Reagan's body lying in state?" (The Reagan National Library.) Sometimes, the questions require more detail than even William G. Stewart would have taken: the contestant who answered "Michelle" to a question about Big Brother was marked incorrect, the producers wanted her full name, Michelle Bass, even though that's never been spoken on screen.

After each individual round, the four contestants go back in to the interrogation room, for a quickfire finale. Questions are on the buzzers, two points for a correct answer, one away for an error or a pass. Highest score at the end of the game wins, and the reaction of one contestant on Tuesday's show proved it's a timed round. Monday's contestants didn't have a rehearsal - one contestant jumped out of her seat when her buzzer turned out to be a loud honk.

The set is rather familiar: a reference library, split by a glass partition from a green brick room. A quiet piece of music drones on through the questioning, gradually rising in pitch, while the show's logo - spokes in a wheel, like a clockface - is surprisingly reminiscent of the iris from the Big Brother 4 logo, albeit without the colour.

There's nothing much wrong with the show, but then neither is there much right with it. The novelty of a news-based quiz quickly wears off, and if it wasn't for the one contestant winning all five shows this week, we'd probably have left the show early. Neither are we convinced by the aloof Matthew Bannister: perhaps the more earthy Julian Worricker, or the catty Fi Glover could front the series. Heck, it could - just - replace the 7 on BBC3, allowing Eddie Mair to host another game show.

Two main problems stand out with THE CRAM. Firstly, there's just too little interaction between the contestants; it would be nice for one round to direct questions at each contestant in turn, then offer for a bonus. The main gripe: it's too intense viewing for an everyday show at this time. Watching one episode made us rather exhausted, watching every day for a week is a recipe for burnout for anyone but a news junkie. It would be far better for the format were the show weekly.

Ultimately, this is not a bad format, but it's suffering from the BBC's strange desire to strip every format across the week. We argued last week that some shows work well once a week, and it's extremely patronising to assume the audience can't cope with schedules that change from day to day. Here's another example of a show that works weekly, but doesn't work daily. File along with Treasure Hunt, Traitor, perhaps HERCULES, maybe even 19 KEYS in a weekly game show slot.


Half a million in the bank this week, but will it be leaving the studio?

Contestant one gets three on her own, and doesn't immediately guess European countries when asked about the Storthing, nor animals of which hippophobia is the fear. She buys the remaining seven answers at £200 a pop, including one contestant who names his price then gives the answer without waiting for assent. Doesn't that count as giving the answer before concluding the deal? Contestant two doesn't guess any rivers in Scotland, or mountains in North America, and gets three on his own. He also buys seven answers at £200 a pop, with one freebie.

Contestant three doesn't guess parts of the body, cities, Bible books, or fruits. He gets the grand non-total of nothing on his own, but initially refuses to deal for anything more than £100, and never gives anything over £200. Eight answers for £1200 isn't going to get him to the semi-final. One answer for contestant four, but she buys answers for £200 from the start, and that's a disaster in the making. She buys all but one answer, but spends £1450, so leaves with less than half of what she came with. The fifth contestant gets three on his own, including the question "Who is the leader of the opposition,"

so no long-running jokes there. He buys the rest for £1300.

Daft answer of the week:

Q: Who wrote the musical "Porgy and Bess"?
A: Andrew Lloyd-Webber.
Q: Who is the shadow chancellor of the exchequer?
A: John Prescott.

Not a particularly strong week in round 2, with players buying answers left, right, and centre, mostly for £300. The finalist has the right attitude, jumping in as soon as he knows the answer to the question, not waiting for Mel's ponderous delivery to finish. The name of Paul McCartney's youngest daughter evades all thirteen people answering the question, but we're very impressed with the range of guesses. "Beatrice" was the answer no-one was ever going to get.

The nineteenth home caller is the seventeenth female player. What are the odds of that, eh? She blazes through the two questions we've already seen in no time at all, gets the oh-so-difficult "Where will the Euro 2004 tournament be held", but comes a cropper on the final question, asking for the author of "The Beach." Alex Garland is the answer that slipped away, so six hundred thousand pounds awaits someone next week.


Mirko Miocic has been on almost every episode of MILLIONAIRE in Croatia for two years. He's not been running some sort of phone brokery scandal, he's merely been a very popular "phone a friend" guest. However, producers from Caledora have told the genius from Zadarhim that his appearances will have to be limited.

A spokesman said: "We are only allowing a single person to be the [phone a friend] three times a year." Mr Miocic said from his home in an Adriatic port that he was disappointed with the new rule, but would not challenge it. "I can understand the show's producers as I was asked to be the phone friend by at least one person on every show.

"Most of the people I never met. I think only about 10 were friends. The rest were strangers who wanted to rent my services. I have even had a few offers from people in other European countries to 'appear' on the same quiz and I am now planning to learn German so I can star on the show there. I guess now, though, it is about time to try it abroad."

In dozens of appearances, Mr Miocic has only once made a mistake - he failed to guess the name of a woman believed to be the first to see the appearance of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Very impressed with this week's ISIHAC, featuring a rather novel twist on that favourite parlour game Mornington Crescent; repeats at 1204 Sunday Radio 4 FM.

Football makes the running on the terrestrial channels, but there's still space for two major highlights this week. First, the return of the splendid STARFINDER (1530 ITV weekdays) in which four youngsters spend a week being an astronaut and - if they're anything like last year's contestants - having a whale of a time. Then repeats of KNIGHTMARE (1930 Challenge weekdays) begin from the very start.


Two weeks into BIG BROTHER 5, and something struck us. This show isn't going to run forever. Channel 4 has optioned the format until next year. If there will be a BB7 two years down the line, C4 needs to know that it's a good cash earner, and a good ratings grabber. After last year's relative failure, this year's instalment could prove vital in the decision for another contract. Could the Pithy Description be: "Desperately Seeking Renewal"?

As outlined by Davina two long weeks ago, last Friday would have seen each contestant nominate one other for an instant eviction. That evictee would pick one other person to join them, and the two would relocate to a small bedsit behind the living area. Perhaps the best way to deal with Kat would have been to continue with that plan, have Kat and A N Other exiled to behind the glass, and only allow the Other back into the main house.

According to the pre-publicity, BIG BROTHER is "evil" this year. So evil that they've (er) upped the prize money by almost half, to £100,000. However, failure in the Saturday tasks could reduce that pot. When Kat declined to leave last week, the pot came down by a thousand pounds for each six seconds she remained in the house. 35 seconds later, the house is one activist and (er) £9000 lighter. Sunday's show clearly showed the countdown at £95,000 as Kat stepped through the door, yet the contestants lost a further four grand. Legal beagles reckon that "Endemol can do anything" contracts wouldn't and couldn't cover this sort of event; it's a unilateral variation of the contract the two parties have signed, and acts against the over-riding principles of equity and fairness. Naturally, the matter wouldn't come before our learned friends, as Endemol wouldn't want to risk losing the case, and would settle out of court. This episode smacks of further poor planning, and is strike one against Endemol.

Perhaps the best way to gauge press interest is to look at Celebdaq dividends. In the first week, Kat took a 215% dividend yield. Nadia came second, with a 175% increase, the house average was 119%, while bookies' favourite Daniel saw a yield of just 50%. At a stroke, Endemol has removed the chief press interest in their production, and left us without a house rebel. Strike two.

For a couple of years, this column has been suggesting that contestants can make a difference by denying Endemol / C4 a phone vote. No one has entered Chateau BB to replace Kat, so there will be one fewer voted eviction than usual this year. However, Endemol was able to salvage something from the situation, by putting up Ahmed, Emma, and Michelle for the fake eviction, with the top two having to share one small room for a few days. Endemol wanted Emma and Michelle to be those two, their psychologist stuck to the party line on BBLB, the nightly show was edited that way, and the duo duly entered the "secret" room last night, and locked themselves in the toilet live on national television.

Strike umpteen against Kat: she could have completely thrown Endemol's plans by mounting a rooftop protest live on national television, and had the cash jackpot diminish to nothing. Who would have walked if there's no prize at the end of it? Would the Saturday tasks be rewarding success, not punishing failure? What will happen if the prize fund reaches zero a week or two before the end of the contest? Mass walkouts? General rule-breaking that makes Kat's behaviour look like a Sunday school picnic?

In fact, let's run with that idea, and say the Saturday Live Tasks are to put

£10,000 into the prize fund. It involved a self-appointed "most intelligent" contestant being asked popular culture questions (which, as even Anne Robinson will tell you, are no test of intelligence) while the "strongest" spun a roundabout containing the other nine, who had eaten sugary foods. The net result of this overly-complex task was that Stuart missed four questions, one contestant wasn't on the roundabout, so the group won £4000, leaving a presumptive five grand in the pot. The questions were of opening round standard on THE VAULT - indeed, the "Which city is the capital of Australia" stumped a home caller last year. There was a cute moment of self-awareness, as "Two households, alike in dignity" appeared in last year's cabaret. Somehow, we can't see any of this year's group quoting Shakespeare.

While we were distracted by the enforced exit of Kat ("the professional villain", according to Jon Tickle) from the show last week, Stuart and Michelle got very close, very quickly. They spent Friday morning last week under the duvet, and have been flirting in the week since. Meanwhile Jason (bedded 250 people) has had Dan (goes for straight men) rub fake tan into him, and if there's a more sexual act, we're not sure what it is. Perhaps it's Dermot discussing the difference between penetration and sex with the sex editor of Cosmopolitan...

Perhaps this year's Pithy Description is "Don't Eat Well." We've already seen Endemol feeding the team sugary drinks and snacks, and their first reward challenge (it's a challenge for a reward, Dermot) was to run a 24-hour "fast"

"food" kitchen. A producer phones in an order, any time of the day or night, and the contestants have just 30 minutes to prepare the dish - from a short list of options - to their specifications. Three failures between Sunday lunchtime and Wednesday and there'll be no reward. They made eleven failures, and there's no reward. Over in the hidden bedsit, standard fare is noodles in a pot, and instant mash.

Perhaps the Pithy Description is "Oops." Not only has the show lost its star within seven days (something the Grate British Public hasn't yet managed), but viewers to the internet feed on Sunday morning were treated to Big Brother Uncensored. Rehearsals for Big Brother's Little Brother replaced the usual fare of sleeping people, with producers commenting on one contestant's assets, suggesting another should cover her face, and the host talking about his night out.

Ahmed had a smashing time on Wednesday, the sound of car alarms proved too much for his patience, and he broke a large number of plates in his rage. At about the same time, Kat made her first public appearance, in the unlikely venue of Brighton Court. She immediately launched into a rant about student fees, but was told to "shut up" by the resident Big Wig. Kat pleaded poverty, and was given six weeks to earn some money to pay her fines. That's why she sold her tale to The Tabloid on Sunday.

Betting: Money for Jason (now second favourite) and Victor (down from 29 to 18) at the expense of Michelle (28 to 40) and Emma (9 to 15). Daniel's remained favourite, around 5.00, while Shell's remained around 6.80.

Where do we stand? The nightly show extended from 30 to 45 minutes each night this week, and strangely felt less interesting as a result. Dan is coming over as a subtle house controller; that did Dean no favours three years ago, but helped Craig to win. Shell is coming along very quietly, a bit like Kate, while Vanessa has her fingers in every pie. Stuart and Michelle are trying far too hard to be the new Paul and Helen, and it's all a bit painful to watch. If there's a winner in there, it's feeling like Shell.

Finally, the unanswered question of the week. On Sunday's BBLB, Kat gave out some carrot sticks to cast and crew. Why?

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