Weaver's Week 2006-08-27

Weaver's Week Index

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


Big Brother 7

"If you've turned over from Big Brother, welcome" - Paddy O'Connell.

Poetry Corner

A brief follow-up to last week's University Challenge poetry starter is in order. Thanks to Sam Broderick, Mark Jones, Stephen Pearson, and Barbara Thompson for their contributions. The consensus opinion of people who know what they're talking about says that John Donne is the author of the four lines quoted. Donne did quite deliberately lift the first two lines from Marlowe's work. The full question asked was accurate, and this column must eat a large slice of humble pie and withdraw its objection to last week's result. As a buzzer question, though, this is amongst the worst yet put to air - our correspondents agree that Marlowe's poem is by far the more famous, and is known for its first two lines. There's a fuller discussion of the poetry elsewhere.

This correspondence is now Donne.

Big Brother 7

Brighter Pictures (an Endemol subsidiary) for C4 and E4, 18 May to 20 August

Let's briefly - very briefly - recap the three months. Fourteen people entered the contest, and everyone thought that Pete would win. Two left of their own volition, one left under most irregular circumstances. Over the course of the remaining weeks, another eight people would live under the roof. Thirteen were eliminated in the course of the contest, one of those returned, leaving six to the final day. At the moment of reckoning, Pete had accumulated the most votes during the final week, and was thus declared the winner.

This column can't be bothered to analyse why Pete won, or how the knowledge that he would win took the tension out of the show. There are two strands of investigation about this year's Big Brother series. Why are two government regulators holding investigations into the programmes? And what is the purpose of Big Brother on a public-service channel?

Strand 1: Why has this year's BB run into such trouble?

The glib answer: it always does. OFCOM, the government-appointed regulator of independent television, receives a regular stream of complaints about Big Brother, typically four per day. In 2004, the regulator took over 300 complaints about "Fight night", eventually delivering a verdict some months later. OFCOM decided that the live coverage had stepped over the mark, but the edited lowlights programme was in order. OFCOM declined to address two matters arising - whether the production had rewarded violence by allowing some of the perpetrators to remain in the house, and whether the producers should be taking money by voting them out. A random and chaotic series last year suggested that the producers were playing reasonably safe. Lessons, though, had not been learned, as we would find out in the first week of this year's transmission.

We'll gloss over the selection of Shahbaz, who appeared utterly unsuited to life in such a bizarre environment. During the opening week, Dawn had indicated her dissatisfaction with the proceedings, and eventually said that she wished to leave the contest. By the time the producers accepted her request, voting for the first eviction had begun, and Dawn was one of three people for whom votes were being accepted. The producers claimed that Dawn had been communicating with the outside world, and decided to remove her from the programme before she could leave. Both Dawn and the producers wished her to leave, but they could not agree terms for her exit. This mess is notable for one reason only - it was understood at the time that the producers might feel obliged to refund votes cast after Dawn had confirmed her exit, and disqualifying her would avoid this situation.

Far greater was the damage done by the Golden Ticket. This was a tie-up with Nestlé, purveyors of chocolate to the British public, and baby milk to the third world. A hundred tickets were hidden in the company's products, entitling the holder to entry in a draw to go into the Big Brother contest. Barely half of the tickets were found before the closing date, and fewer than 30 people made it on stage for the draw ceremony. Frustrated viewers have claimed that the contest was not entirely above board, and the Advertising Standards Authority is currently looking into the matter.

Almost inevitably, once the tickets were found, some of them were put up for auction. It may surprise the sponsors to learn that most people weren't buying their chocolate for the prospect of spending two months cooped up in a converted studio in north London. There then followed an interesting piece of economic market clearance. People with tickets were - in principle - prepared to sell them for little more than the price of postage; people without tickets but with a burning desire to get on screen were prepared to pay a thousand pounds and more for that chance. The result: most of the people hoping their number would come up had auditioned for, and been rejected from, Big Brother in the past. This probably wasn't the result that the producers intended when they started the project.

So far, there's nothing beyond a couple of storms in a tea-cup - in a project spanning a hundred days, there's bound to be some slightly questionable production decisions. Big Brother's final tangle with the regulators, though, could be the most damaging. Two weeks before the end, eight of the contestants who had been voted out of the house were put back up before the public. The top four vote-getters were considered by the remaining contestants; one joined them, and was eligible to win. The problem here: the rule that, once removed from the contest, contestants could not win. Three thousand people have contacted OFCOM; their complaints have been referred to the premium rate telephone regulator ICSTIS.

The producers attempted to minimise the damage by insisting that the funds from this vote back would go entirely to charity. However, this does not attempt to defend against the underlying point: the rule about evictions being final could assume the force of a contractual term. If ICSTIS were so minded, it could determine that the entire show to that point had operated under false pretences, and order the repayment of eleven weeks' telephone costs. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests this runs to many millions of pounds.

Reports from the ASA and ICSTIS are awaited, and this column will report in due course.

Strand 2: what is the purpose of Big Brother on a public-service channel?

Channel 4 may not always look like it, but it is a public service channel. Like the BBC, it is meant to provide airtime to programmes that would not be made (or shown) in a pure commercial environment. It's fair to argue that C4 should be allowed some leeway in the way it interprets the rules - not every show needs to be high starch, or worthy. The channel does not have the guaranteed income of the television license fee, must sell advertising, and needs to have some bankers. By this analysis, Big Brother is not obviously alien to C4. It's popular, it brings in the viewers, it brings in the advertisers, and (multi-million-pound refunds notwithstanding) it's a profitable venture.

But there is a cost. Big Brother dominates the schedules like no other production. On the terrestrial Channel 4, there were ninety-three daily highlights shows, over two hundred hours of spin-off shows and repeats, something over nine days of "unedited" "live" coverage in the small hours. Cable channel E4 suffered even more, with BB dominating three-quarters of the week for a quarter of the year. This is an immense block in the schedules, and it's very hard to argue that every single minute was well spent. The opportunity cost of Big Brother is a wide range of entertainment, some of which will shed more light on the human condition than constructed events in a London studio.

We must also ask if Big Brother helps to improve Channel 4 by delivering viewers to other programmes? It's a very difficult question to test, but we can get some measure of the intention by looking at the programmes promoted within Big Brother. Almost without exception, it's the entertainment programmes, usually the imported entertainments. It's almost as though Channel 4 were a channel showing programmes from the US, with a few locally-produced sops to the regulator. This isn't the case, but someone who tuned in to Channel Big Brother would hear of nothing else.

If Big Brother is going to lose its premium-rate phone revenue, as ICSTIS may order, it's not going to be a nice little earner for Channel 4, and a key plank in the programme's defence is lost.

At the end of each series, it's traditional for one of the production team to pen a piece explaining why Big Brother hasn't jumped the shark. Executive producer Phil Edgar-Jones drew the straw this time. His comments included: "People apply to be on this show", "We knew the second house wasn't soundproof," an interesting admission. "Twists and turns are part of the Big Brother tradition," but so is blatantly re-writing history. "We like it when lots of people watch our show," though that raises another argument.

In June, this column noted that Endemol had been responsible for 20 of the channel's top 22 broadcasts. That was an exceptional week, but the conglomerate has regularly had twelve or more of the top 20 programmes. Is it right for Channel 4 to give so much airtime to one broadcaster? Charles Allen, who recently resigned as head of ITV, criticised C4 in a high-profile lecture this week, saying that "Channel 4 has a public service broadcasting remit high on warm words, low on specifics. Effectively it makes it up as it goes along." Viewers, we hear, want a Channel 4 that prefers "the risky to the risqué, that sought out the bold, not the banal" and is "brave rather than brazen". We could, naturally, apply the same standards to ITV, and there's as much sour grapes as wisdom in Mr Allen's speech.

It's difficult to work out when Big Brother stopped being a game show and became an improvised soap opera where the cast don't know the plot - this column suggests it's somewhere between Fight Night on 17 June 2004, and the completely rigged army game four weeks later. We've not watched the show since, and don't think that we've missed anything.

Usually, this column ends its annual review with a call for no more Big Brother. We're going to save our breath, and give a last word to former contestant and arch-critic Germaine Greer.

"What makes it unlikely that Big Brother will be taken off the air is the tentacular spread of its revenue-generating potential. Reality television is both the cheapest to make and the biggest potential earner for its co-producers, not to mention the communications companies and ISPs."

Finally, we note that interest in the contract has been shown by the knacker's yard of shows well past their air-by date. By 2008, will Big Brother be going out on ITV?


First round, episode 21

Mitchell Gosling runs on the History of the Modern Marathon, 1896 - Present. The round is not quite as bright as his shirt, but very nearly - 11 (3) is perfectly respectable.

Xin Dong offers Middle Egyptian Literature - he's in a red-to-orange striped jumper that's far more appealing than any of Noel's similarly-coloured shirts. The right answer always seems to be the second one on his tongue, and a final score of 6 (2) doesn't do him justice.

Diane Hallagan has been diving into the Junior Mastermind bran-tub, and picked out The Vicar of Dibley. She's dressed in a red skirt and black top, and makes her way to 13 (0).

Ray Ward has the Life and Times of Anne Frank. He's in a spotty purple tie and eye-searing orange shirt. We'll see him in a crowd. And we'll see him shortly, after finishing on 10 (4).

Mr Xin is, we think, Chinese, and we saw earlier in the year how a student from the far East didn't do so well on UK-specific trivia. He does decently well, finishing on 12 (5).

Mr Ward suggests that the heroine's name would be pronounced "Anna", rather than "Anne". He spends a few moments in Pass Hell, and ends up on 16 (8).

Mr Gosling is an ex-marathon runner, his best time is under three and a half hours. Though he gets "Three Lions", he misses Lady Bracknell of handbag fame, and finishes on 16 (9).

Not a steep hurdle for Mrs Hallagan, a member of Millionaire's exclusive Thirteen Club, and one-third of the last Masterteam winning team. She steams through the round, finishing on 26 (1).

University Challenge

First Round, Match 3: York v Harris Manchester Oxford

Two young colleges this week - York is a product of the sixties concrete-and-lakes boom, Harris Manchester came into being as recently as 1996, and is the college for mature students. Three English students for HMO, two historians for York.

We're surprised to learn that neither team knows about lawnmower racing. York have the better of the early exchanges, and after the visual round, their lead is 60-40. HMO reckon that Enid Blyton was a naturist in the 1890s, before she was born; Thumper misses a good Sneer Opportunity there, most out of character. No wonder he goes on to talk about the "callipygian" aspect, as exemplified by Anneka Rice.

Third week running we've had a mention for Robert Fitzroy in the Monday quiz hour - this week, it's the opening of Darwin's record of the voyage of the Beagle. Ska is the subject of this week's audio round, and York's lead is 130-75 at this point. The side is getting two starters to each of Harris Manchester's, and recognise the Specials' song "Ghost town" from the first note of its introduction. HMO gets a starter, and a set of bonuses on thermodynamics. Three English students and a geographer ensure the scorekeeper can nip off for a minute.

There's a long pause after Thumper asks what the DCMS stands for. That's going to be re-used in some satire programme or other. The second picture round is on features of an athletic stadium, by which time York's lead is up to 180-80. The game is over, and York rather runs away with the final stanza of play, racking up the score to win 265-95. Harris Manchester broke three figures until a missignal cost them points.

York finished on 21/44 bonuses with two missignals; Nicholas Duvall made seven starters and has a 100-point game. Harris Manchester took 9/18 bonuses and two missignals; Lawrence Hill's three starters meant he top-scored with 39.

Next match: Merton Oxford v Manchester

This Week And Next

Two weeks' ratings to plough through. Week to 6 August - 1st In It To Win It (6.25m) 2nd Big Brother (Fri eviction, 5.9m) 3rd Maria (Results, 5.2m). The UC Pro final had 2.45m, just behind Dragons' Den (2.5m). Bad Lads' Army took 3.3m, Millionaire 3.15m, Love Island 2.85m. Three episodes of Come Dine With Me made C4's top thirty, the best score 1.75m. Digital results do not include E4; CLI on ITV2 had 320,000, Deal 200,000.

Week to 13 August: 1st In It To Win It (6.9m) 2nd Big Brother (Fri eviction, 5.75m), 3rd Maria (Performance, 5.05m). Millionaire had 3.9m, X-Factor 3.45m, Link 3.4m. Dragons' Den 2.5m, the first UC 2.4m, Mastermind a second week at 2.1m. Come Dine had 1.8m. Digital: 920,000 for Friday's BBBMouth, with BBLB having 530,000. An X-Factor rerun had 610,000 on ITV2, CLI had 340,000. CBBC's most-viewed show was Friday's Raven The Island (220,000), Get Your Own Back took 160,000.

On Friday, the BBC announced that Dermot O'Leary would host the UK's version of One Against One Hundred. Ever-alert for the call to action, UKGameshows had the host up thirty-six hours before the Beeb's press office. In a busy week for new format news, Les Dennis will host Speculation, a Channel 5 production for the 19 Keys slot. And The Apprentice will move to BBC1 for its third series next year, dashing hopes that we'd seen the last of Alan Sugar.

If you're reading this column over the week-end, the All Star Cup is on ITV for most of Sunday and Monday. If you're reading it in the office on Tuesday morning, you missed it. Countdown moves back to 3.30, making way for the returning Deal or No Deal at 4.15 - though just for one week. On Wednesday, The Apprentice US begins on BBC2 in the oh-so-prestigious After Newsnight slot. Thursday, Gameshow Marathon US comes to ITV2. Friday, The Best of the Worst appears on C4.

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