Weaver's Week 2007-04-15

Weaver's Week Index

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


A Brief History of 0898

A slightly abridged Week this time, for reasons as tedious as they are personal.

University Challenge

Semi-final: UCL v Warwick

UCL has been quietly dominant in its three matches so far. Warwick has pushed its luck a little, beating UEA in unusual circumstances, and appearing to get some assistance from the chairman in the last round. We've heard from a producer on University Challenge, who says that Thumper's instruction was to accept "Commonwealth War Graves", plus any logical conclusion - or, in Warwick's case, none. We may disagree with the instruction, but we certainly appreciate the explanation.

Like an explanation of the rules, that tedium is in the past, we'll head into the second semi-final. Again, Warwick gets rubs of the green in the opening moments, replying "Mona Lisa" to a poser about her smile, and hesitating on a later buzzer question. There's no arguing with the range of classical knowledge required here - the works of Pope, and minor characters in Genesis (the Bible book, not the band). By the time we reach the first visual round, on works of art depicting harlequins, Warwick has a lead, 110-0. It's surely insurmountable, and there's still twenty minutes to play!

UCL does spring into action early in the second stanza, correctly reaching "Third World" from its history and a quotation. Though Warwick gets a few starters, their bonus conversion rate has fallen, and there are many missignals. By the audio round, extracts from lullabies, UCL has closed the gap slightly, to 120-35. That brings us to proof that Thumper really doesn't come from the same world as the rest of us:

Q: There are twelve edges, or one-dimensional cubes, on a three-dimensional cube. How many one-dimensional cubes are there on a four-dimensional cube?

Thirty-two, the answer that no-one ever looked likely to get. We hear separate sets of questions about an Edinburgh literary magazine, the year 1972, and mountain ranges in North America. Warwick continues to buzz very well - Harold Wyber banging his buzzer with enough force to almost break the desk (it's a tribute to Granada's carpenters that he doesn't), and Daisy Christodulou winning the race of the English Lit captains. There's a question about the censorship of plays by the Lord Chamberlain's office, a practice that was stopped after a stink was kicked up when the office barred a play by Bamber Gascoigne. The second visual round is on areas of Italy, and Warwick's lead is 175-60.

Warwick has the time to work out the name for a seventeen-sided plane figure, but evidently hasn't heard why Madonna (the pop star) chose the confirmation name of Veronica. The gong comes in a section of questions about a satellite of Saturn, and Warwick has emerged the clear winners, 235-85.

Daisy Christodulou was Warwick's lead buzzer, answering ten (count 'em!) starters correctly, and we credit her with 119 points. For UCL, two starters each for Ellen Dwyer, Joe Murray, and James Doeser; Mr. Murray's starters led to more correct bonuses, so his 29 points is the side's top score. Bonus conversion rates were low: UCL made 6/18 with one missignal, Warwick took 20/46 with five incorrect interruptions.

Next match: Manchester v Warwick in the Grand Final.

A Brief History Of 0898

It's worth reviewing the history of the premium rate telephone number, and how it's affected the television game show. Premium-rate numbers were introduced by BT in late 1986, and were initially something of a niche service. Racing tipsters, financial updates, and sex lines provided most of the £20 million call revenue in the first year. The unique selling point of a premium-rate number was that roughly half the call cost - at this time, around 12p per minute - would be given to the organisation sponsoring the number. Even if people only stayed on the line for a part of a minute, 2p here and 4p there would quickly mount up and cover the cost of the technology.

A small portion of this cash came from television viewers participating in the premier Public Premium Phone Plebiscite. This small piece of history came in the 1987 revival show, Bob Says... Opportunity Knocks. The reason for its use was simple practicality - it's easier, quicker, and cheaper to program a computer to tally the number of telephone calls than to pay a team of researchers to count postcards, and the cost of a call can easily be cheaper than a second-class stamp. Everyone won from the arrangement, including the most popular act on the show, who could now be identified on the night rather than two days before transmission.

The premium-rate phone-in quickly became the standard method for determining winners of talent contests and the like, and it's difficult to remember a time when shows like A Song for Europe relied on stuck-down envelopes. In retrospect, it's surprising that it took until 1990 for a broadcaster to realise that it could set up a premium-rate number (in those days, always beginning 0898), use the 10p from each call, and fund a prize from that money. Newspapers and magazines had already caught on to that particular trick, but oft-forgotten daytime filler Brainwave was the first to invite its viewers to call in. A thousand calls funded the £100 daily prize; larger prizes, such as the Today's the Day trip around the world, would be the prize for a whole series.

All the BBC programmes giving away Premium Phone Prizes asked a moderately difficult question. This wasn't true for the commercial rivals, where GMTV came in for much stick after asking its viewers to call in and answer some tremendously easy questions. "Would you like to win £10,000? Call our 0898 number and answer A) Yes, or B) No." By and large, these contests were even less intellectually stimulating than toddlers' television, and they were generally ridiculed as the hallmark of shoddy and thoughtless programmes. Changes in the telephone numbering plan in 1994 reserved the 0898 prefix for adult lines; general-use numbers migrated to 0891, and then to 090 during 1999.

Two developments around this time changed the way television producers viewed premium-rate numbers. In 1998, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? took to the air, and funded its seven-figure jackpot from potential applicants to the programme. Two years later, Big Brother invited viewers to influence, and ultimately determine, the outcome of a game show. Or social experiment, as it might have been at the time. Changes during the 1990s had allowed premium-rate calls to be charged on connection, rather than by the length of the call, allowing programmes to quote a fixed cost per call. At 10p per call, the initial series of Big Brother generated phone revenue in the millions, of which around half was returned to Endemol. Over the years, Big Brother begat a host of reality shows, casting shows, singing and performing shows.

The premium rate telephone call wasn't an exclusively British phenomenon; German broadcaster Neun Live had made its business out of making television shows where viewers could call in and attempt to answer a puzzle for a cash reward. The shows were cheap to make, the prizes weren't particularly lavish, satellite transmission was reasonably inexpensive, and the company turned a decent profit. So did Endemol, who began taking over parts of Channel 5's daytime schedule in 2002, putting out games like Brainteaser and Memory Bank. In a reverse of the usual arrangement, Endemol would pay Channel 5 for the honour of putting out the programme. This was worth their while - in 2003, according to the producers, almost a third of the audience was calling in.

Home-grown satellite channel Nation 217 (named after its position in one satellite provider's channel list) launched in November 2003, and originally spent its evenings gossiping about what was airing on the other channels. That proved a less than compelling attraction, and the channel expanded its late-night filler, Quiz Nation. Similar to Neun Live's proposition, callers would be invited to answer a simple question, and potentially win a sizable jackpot. Other channels were quick to spot the potential here: ITV launched Big Game TV on ITV3 in the summer of 2005, moved it to ITV2 during the autumn, and promoted the format to the terrestrial channel just before the end of the year.

This column has long questioned the ethics behind these channels, which we've dubbed "call-and-lose". Never do the broadcasters make clear just how few people are taken to air, compared with the large numbers who call in. In an effort to persuade people to call in, the channels frequently put up seemingly impossible questions - even back in 2004, Neun Live filled over an hour of television with a counting question that no-one got. The broadcasters refuse to disclose how their contests work, which leads cynics to conclude that they're just making it up as they go along.

After twenty years, it looks as though the premium-rate number is finally receiving some scrutiny. Goodness knows that it needs it; leafing through a Radio Times from early 2007, we found a hundred shows on the five terrestrial channels involving a premium rate phone in, and that was just from Saturday to Tuesday.

This Week And Next

We're rather late to report the news that Ireland's parliament has approved additional funding for state broadcaster RTÉ, so that it might create a new channel for overseas viewers. It's expected to come on air later this year, and will show such good stuff as the news, local soap opera Fair City, and home-made entertainment programmes. Including domestic game shows such as Celebrity Jigs and Reels, the mind-bendingly complex Winning Streak, and the impressively simple children's game Gridlock. It's the one that makes the tax law look like bedtime reading.

Charles Ingram has been in court. Again. This time, he's been convicted of assaulting a child of 13 who spat at him while faking a cough. A magistrate in Salisbury heard the youngster claim that Mr. Ingram had grabbed the lad, and shoved him against a wall. The court also heard the child say that he had made up many of the details. Mr. Ingram claimed that he acted in self-defence. This plea was not accepted, and Mr. Ingram was convicted but granted an absolute discharge. Mr. Ingram said, "The prosecution witnesses were contradictory and one was shown to be lying and yet I was convicted." He did not rule out an appeal.

Viewing figures for the week to 1 April, provided by BARB, and we can see the hole left by Dancing on Ice. Any Dream Will Do takes the top of the ratings tree, 6.85m tuning in for the first episode. People's Quiz had 6.6m, and a Dr Who special edition of Weakest Link attracted 5.4m. A part-networked transmission of The Apprentice took 4.5m on Wednesday night, beating A Question of Sport on 4.3m. All of this came ahead of Millionaire, just 3.95m tuning in there.

The minor channels had a tie, with both Link and Deal attracting 2.85m viewers. University Challenge had 2.8m, Underdog Show and Eggheads 2.2m, along with the fully-networked Apprentice You're Fired interview. Ready Steady Cook took 1.6m. Channel 5 makes a rare foray into this section, as Interior Rivalry had 750,000 viewers. I Blame The Spice Girls didn't make the channel's top thirty; it was beaten by Pop Idle US, which chalked up 625,000 viewers. Deal on More4 attracted 240,000, Raven had 175,000, beating the 160,000 for Jungle Run. Challenge's top audience came for Takeshi's Castle, which had 100,000 people tuning in for the edition transmitted on Sunday at 4.35. In the morning. No, really.

Highlights next week include a new series of Scrapheap Challenge (C4, 5.40 tonight), Get 100 (BBC2, 7.30am weekdays), and a new series of Take It or Leave It (Challenge, 9pm weekdays).

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