Weaver's Week 2017-05-28

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"ITV replaces The Chase with an alternative tea-time quiz show #BritishThreatLevels"




STV and Armoza for ITV, 1-26 May

ITV is wise to put out different shows at 5pm. In the fullness of time, The Chase will fall from fashion, and reach its ask-by date. When this inevitable occurs, ITV needs some tried and tested replacements to fill the gap. Variety is the spice of life, absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.

Viewers don't see it that way. Whenever The Chase goes off air for as much as a day, large headlines in low-quality newspapers proclaim that ITV has "axed" the programme. No, it's just resting, we are on a break, and we did all of these dead parrot and Friends jokes a month back.

Negative publicity will enter the mind, and might prejudice the viewer against the show. ITV has an uphill battle to make people like the show. It is likely that we have been influenced by the extreme hysteria whipped up by churnalists, and we may not know how much this has interfered with our opinions.

Babushka Rylan sneers at the critics.

One man, ten dolls

Babushka is hosted by Rylan Clark-Neal. At one time he was a contestant on The X Factor. Then he won Celebrity Big Brother, where he met his husband Dan. Rylan's hosted the spin off series Big Brother's Little Bit on the Side, there was a chat show on Channel 5, and the couple have done a turn on This Morning.

A pair of players take part in each hour-long game. They will open eight out of ten matryoshka dolls, the ones with smaller replicas of themselves inside. In the show's slang, these are "babushkas", grannies.

Babushka These grannies aren't going to bake a cake.

Two of the dolls are empty, and contain nothing other than dry ice. Two others contain one replica, valued at £500. Another pair contain two replicas, worth £500 and £1000. Two more dolls are worth £2000. Another contains £5000, and one doll has five replicas worth up to £10,000.

To begin the game, the players pick one of the ten dolls. Each has been given a Russian-sounding name: Anastacia, Yuliya, Olga, Natalia, that sort of thing. Each has a different look: one has glasses, another is winking.

Babushka Why, I do believe that doll is winking.
That's not all she's doing, Mave.

After confirming that they want to put Olga in play, our duo are shown ten categories. Behind each category is a true-false question. To play the doll, the team must get this question right. Failure carries a grave penalty – it removes everything they have won so far, and they will not win anything from that doll.

Assuming the team gets this question right (and these aren't tremendously difficult true-false questions), they push a button. Music plays, there are dramatic shots, the tension is ramped up, and the doll springs open.

We hope it's to reveal a £500 replica, because if it's not, the team wins nothing from that doll, and they lose everything they've won so far.

Babushka Hope they banked before £1000.

At this point, the team has a choice. Bank the £500, or push the button again in the hope of seeing £1000. If it's in there, great, think about banking or press on. But if they press too far, and the doll is empty, the team wins nothing from that doll, and they lose everything they've won so far.

Is this sounding a bit repetitive? Good. It's meant to. The show cycles around these options for all eight picks. At least twice, a team is going to get a question wrong, or find an empty doll, or push their luck further than it can go, and lose everything they've won so far.

There are some twists in the format. "Switch" allows players to swap one easy true-or-false question for another. "Peek" allows players to open a doll by one level, and if they find the doll is empty, then it doesn't count.

"X-ray" is available if a team has £5000 or more after four dolls. This gives the option to fully open one of the last three dolls, evaluate how much is inside it, and decide whether to play it or leave it. By chance, that help is going to be available slightly more than once a week, in truth it's likely to be in play about once a fortnight.

After eight dolls are opened, the game comes to an end. The team may not have any money: in this event, Rylan commiserates, and sends them packing with all the heart he can muster.

Babushka Reminds us of our favourite Michael Jackson hit: Stranger in Moscow.

The team may have some money, and Rylan has one final choice for them to make. Two small babushkas are brought out: black and white. Inside one is nothing; inside the other is double the prize. If the team wishes to open one of these dolls, they can do, and they will be bound by the result. But they don't have to, if they want to walk away with the money in hand, that's quite fine.

Doll or No Doll

There's an obvious comparison with Noel Edmonds' long-running red box game on another channel. We think this misses the point. The classic structure of Deal or No Deal is a decision about whether to play on or cash out at that particular moment. It's a question of whether a putative future offer will be much better than the one in front of you.

There is no early exit from Babushka. You're in the show for all eight dolls. Only the optional double-or-quits endgame is like Deal or No Deal, and then only from the gratuitous Box 23 they brought in near the end.

Babushka Rylan, the button, and the players.

Having said that, we can see one other similarity. Rylan Clark-Neal is a superb host. Like Noel, Rylan is engaging and witty, with a sparkle in his eye. It took most of the month for us to work out his style; once we did, we appreciated his work more. He doesn't dominate the game, he doesn't instruct people in what to do. He lays out the facts and lets people make their own decisions.

Babushka is a game of revealed information. When a team decides to stop and bank some money, Rylan pushes on. He presses the button, and opens up the doll until he knows how much was in it. So when the team takes £1000 from a £2000 doll, they will know a £2000 doll is gone, but the £5000 is still in play. Armoza have decided to reveal this additional information, perhaps hoping to build up larger pots towards the end of the game. Perhaps that explains why they reset the scores so often.

Other aspects of Babushka are excellent. Dobs Vye contributes a sterling soundtrack, based on traditional Russian folk tunes. The studio décor fits the mood: it's a dark set, but with lots of bright lights and plenty of colour.

Babushka Here's a shot from late in the game: clear, not dull.

All things considered, Babushka is a solid idea. The surrounding elements are spot-on, and the basic format is decent. All the bits are present to make a good show, but it's not caught the public imagination.

Part of this must be because it's not The Chase, it's nothing like The Chase, and it's very different for the slot. Babushka moves at a sedate pace: never fast, but nor is it annoyingly slow. While The Chase whips along at a zillion miles per hour, Babushka moves along at a steady 70. On tempo alone, it would be a closer match with Tipping Point.

Babushka as a 4pm swap for Tipping Point makes sense. Both are journey shows, where we're rooting for a contestant to get something out of an infernal contraption. Both feature lots of repetitions of a simple task – we'll get a coin dropped or a doll opened almost every minute of the show. At 5pm, the audience is used to an intellectual duel against a human opponent. Playing probabilities doesn't have the same challenge.

Armoza's formats

Part of this, we fear, is a problem with Armoza's formats. The company doesn't have a tremendous record over here. The Common Denominator (C4, 2013) was crowded out by Only Connect and The Link, and is now remembered (if at all) for its ring tones. Rising Star (ITV, 2015) got cancelled before it was even made. The Bubble (BBC2, 2010) was a cogent idea lost for reasons beyond the producers' control – and was heavily tweaked for audiences here.

Maybe that's what Armoza is missing. We can easily see Rylan International giving exactly the same show in Norwegian, in Portugese, in Arabic, in Hindi. By selling global formats, and keeping quite tight control over them, Armoza imposes its particular vision of what makes a good game.

Armoza has made a show that is right for their local sensibilities. All or nothing, jackpot or broke, death or glory. They don't wish to deal in piddling little amounts. It's an artistic decision, we can see their working. And we think it's the wrong answer.

Babushka Not every doll is worth ten grand.

This market has different sensibilities. We like to see big wins. Of course we like to see big wins, we'll cheer for £7000 any day. But we don't mind more modest wins, the £2500 on Tipping Point feels like a fair reward. And, if someone's unlucky and ends up playing for comedy amounts, a host like Rylan would be in his element.

For this version, we might prefer to replace the Total Wipeout with a Decimate. Get a question wrong? Lose the last digit from your prize find. Push a doll too far? Lose the last digit from your prize fund.

Right now, the show can end on the eighth question. The players get it wrong, and leave with nothing. These are poor endings, Rylan still has to go through the proveout. Or the show can end by finding the wrong doll, the one empty out of three possible. These are different losses: one is in the players' control, the other is sheer luck.

By keeping a small fraction of the prize, we're certain to get to the double-or-quits round, and take *something* into it. And the psychology of small wins makes for more interesting television. "Jim and Tim, you've got £260. Do you want to try and double it?" Bang, there's an emotional payoff for the final act.

Babushka There's a lot of chrome, Rylan navigates it well.

We like Babushka, we appreciate it on a technical and artistic level. But we don't love it.

And, in the hyper-competitive 5pm market, "not loving it" is a fatal verdict. Where The Chase brought in about 3 million viewers, Babushka started at 1.5 million and fell gracefully. Curiously, Pointless didn't get much of a lift, but Four in a Bed and Come Dine with Me on Channel 4 have been gently rising.

Had it been a 4pm show, we reckon Babushka would have done well enough. By going in at 5, it might have bitten off more than it can chew.

This Week and Next

Thanks to Duncan Stott for this week's opener.

Celwydd Noeth is not a game for the tipsy. On this week's episode, the player was asked about the cross of St David. To confirm that it was gold on a black background, he rolled up his trouser leg.

Celwydd Noeth Unexpected places to find quiz answers, number 4.

Rolled up his trouser leg? Yes! On his calf was a tattoo of the flag. We have heard of schoolchildren writing exam answers on their cuffs, but never quiz players getting a tattoo of an answer.

BARB ratings in the week to 14 May.

  1. This Territory's Got Talent (ITV, Sat) remains number one, with 10.2m viewers. The Eurovision Song Contest final (BBC1, Sat) averaged 6.9m over the evening.
  2. Masterchef (BBC1, Fri) crowned its champion, seen by 6.45m. Have I Got News for You (BBC1, Fri) inherited a big audience, averaging 5.35m.
  3. Take Me Out (ITV, Sat) scored 3.2m, Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Sat) had 3.65m. Bake Off Crème de la Crème (Tue) topped on BBC2, 2.35m viewers.
  4. How well is Four in a Bed (C4, Fri) doing? 740,000 viewers, up significantly on series aired during The Chase.
  5. No change to the digital big guns: Celebrity Juice (ITV2, Thu) 1.355m, Taskmaster (Dave, Tue) 740,000, More Talent (ITV2, Sat) 730,000. The Eurovision Song Contest semi-final (BBC4, Tue) brought 505,000 viewers.

By comparison, the Ireland ratings (overnights only) for Eurovision were 270,000 for the Thursday semi-final with RTE's entry, and 270,000 for the Saturday final. This Territory's Got Talent on TV3 had 180,000 viewers, and repeats of The Cube interested 110,000.

Semi-finals week on Got Talent (ITV and TV3, Mon-Fri), and The Chase is back (ITV, weekdays). Series final of Bake Off Crème de la Crème (BBC2, Wed), and of Bigheads (ITV, Sun). And for very boring reasons, this week's Have I Got News for You makes a slight return to BBC2.

Photo credits: STV, Cwmni Da.

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