Weaver's Week 2006-12-31
'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'
The Week of the Year - 2006
As another year prepares to consign itself to the history archive, there's just time to recall the highlights and lowlights.
It is remarkable to remember BBC1's flagship game show from the first week of 2006. Remember Millionaire Manor? No? Probably for the best; never before has a Saturday lottery show consistently missed the channel's top 30 programmes. Mark Durden-Smith's yawnfest was not renewed when its run ended in March.
By then, the BBC had begun the first of two singing contests. Just the Two of Us paired moderately-famous people with moderately-successful singers, and was a sufficiently moderate success to secure a second series in 2007. The second vocal competition, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? went out in the early autumn, and gave Connie Fisher the break she needed to launch her career. It's far too early to tell, but we reckon Connie could join Will, Lemar, and Girls Aloud as successful stars from reality shows.
Existing celebrities were challenged for charity. Only Fools On Horses was the benefit for Sports Relief, and while the format was an uninspiring hotch-potch of every reality format going, the result was surprisingly entertaining. The annual Children In Need Of Assistance back-slapping was graced by Celebrity Scissorhands, an idea that reeked of barrels being scraped.
New children's output on BBC1 was limited, at least when it came to game shows; Sports Relief Gets Subbed and Keep Your Hair On were banal. The Slammer was a traditional talent show, featuring the affable Ted Robbins and many actors from Dick and Dom's bungalow. Beat the Boss was an affable little business exercise, and proved that Aprentice runner-up Saira Khan could make difficult concepts interesting.
A Question of Sport continued to appear each Friday night, without any particular points of interest. Have I Got News for You had its traditional runs, but remained hopelessly variable, dependent on the ability (or incompetence) of its host.
The lottery rotation lost Come and Have a Go, and gained the one-week promotional film Everyone's a Winner. We also saw the UK version of One Against One Hundred, a surprisingly compelling proposition. An invasion of the stage during the draw on Eurovision night prompted Eamonn Holmes to retreat behind Sarah Cawood, and eventually the draws moved to a closed studio.
Best new programme on BBC1 was School's Out, a thoroughly entertaining and informative contest hosted by Danny Wallace. The conceit was to base a quiz around school learning, ensuring much embarrassment for those who had not done their homework, and much credibility for those who won.
The most fundamental change in terrestrial television this year was the shift of Saturday morning children's programmes to BBC2. The slot had become increasingly anachronistic, even Christmas morning shows went out on BBC2, so there was a certain inevitability about the change. It meant that the last dozen episodes of Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow went out on the minor channel, though the inevitable documentary was a CBBC channel extra. The permanent replacement, TMI, is a reversion to the anodyne Saturday television.
It would be unfair to say that grown-up BBC2 has been devoid of experimentation, but neither has it developed many new shows this year. Masterchef Goes Large was a familiar concept, executed in a slightly novel manner. It begat a celebrity spin-off on BBC1, and the Great British Menu, a celebration of haute cuisine in which viewers were asked to phone in and guess which dish would taste best. A similar lack of sense marred The Apprentice, another three-month commercial for Alan Sugar.
Primetime saw Petrolheads, a quiz about expensive cars; another run of Dragons' Den; and a one-off Battle of the Geeks, asking two teams to fire a raw egg over a desert valley. Mastermind shifted from Thursday to Tuesday to Monday, occupying six time slots over its run, and spending the last few months propping itself up on University Challenge. The 31-week format is far too long, and we strongly encourage the producers to drop to 16 heats, and take greater care when setting questions. Mastermind might look to the next show to see how to turn a show around. In 2003, University Challenge looked destined for the dumper. Since then, the questions have tightened up, the teams have visibly improved, the host has relaxed, and the show is gripping without ever losing a sense of fun. Look, do you ever catch Humphrys asking this sort of thing:
- Q: A presenter takes twelve seconds to read a question, eight seconds to view the looks of blank incomprehension, and four seconds to give the correct answer. How many questions does he get through in two minutes?
- (Time passes.)
- (After looking at the blank faces for, yes, eight seconds...)
- Thumper: Not very many at this rate!
Back on daytime, and The Weakest Link remained the show to catch, even if we completely neglected it. There was a revival of Through the Keyhole, and more series of the oh-so-tedious Eggheads, which had its two biggest audiences on bank holidays in May. We far preferred Eamonn Holmes's sure touch on Sudo-Q, a show that has vastly improved following a transfer from BBC1's lunchtime slot.
Show of the year on this channel is Let Me Entertain You. The variety show with a twist - the audience will boot off an act if it's dull - promises eight thrills in every show. A second series is promised for the new year, and we really can't wait.
2006 was a year of transition for ITV. Little did we realise, when we reviewed the new series of Finders Keepers in January, that it would be the last ever ITV game show commission for children. A cut in programme budgets, aimed at pleasing shareholders rather than viewers, is a betrayal of ITV's heritage. Supine management and asinine pronouncements from the uncultured culture minister ensured that Children's ITV is as dead as a dodo. The last production, the 26th and final episode of Saturday Showdown, crept out on the CITV channel on 1 July; episodes of Jungle Run held over from last year finally ran out on 6 December.
Not that ITV reduced its game show content - far from it. Call-and-lose programmes appeared just about every night, replacing the assortment of cheap entertainment programmes with a very cheap one.
Prime time shows concentrated on the concept of celebrity, rather than using members of the public. Soapstar Superstar asked people from continuing dramas to sing a song, while X Factor Battle Of The Stars was open to anyone, so long as they were moderately famous. Dancing on Ice emerged from its three-year gestation only to find that the Beeb's Strictly Come Dancing had got there first. Soccer Aid (football) and All Star Cup (golf) were celebrities attempting to do sport, and All-Star Family Fortunes was as predictable as it sounds.
Daytime remained bereft of good ideas. The Price is Right has been through more slots than a misaddressed letter, and Dickinson's Real Deal is real dull. Though a whole new series of Cash Cab has been filmed, ITV has deigned to show precisely two episodes. That's still better than It's Now Or Never, axed halfway through its run of two programmes.
Familiar faces provided points of reference - Antan Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway and I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! both gained huge audiences, as did the Simon Cowell promotional vehicle The X Factor. Who Wants to be a Millionaire was shunted from pillar to post, and taken off for a couple of months.
Were there any high points? Extinct: The Quiz was dull but worthy, and Bad Lads' Army was potty-mouthed but hit a certain something. High point of the year, though, is The Con Test, aka Poker Face, Antan Dec's game of knowledge and bluff. A week-long series in the summer had its rough edges, but was far more hit than miss, and we're looking forward to a second series early next year.
Shall we just rename this to The Endemol Broadcasting Corporation, and be done with it? During one week in June, just two Endemol titles - Deal or No Deal and Big Brother - occupied nineteen of the channel's 22 most-viewed programmes. Including the celebrity edition, Big Brother monopolised the channel for almost four months, and it's common consent that this was overkill. Deal Or No Deal, in its first full year of transmission, reached a ratings plateau in the spring at around 3 million viewers per day, and a third of television viewing when it's on. The guessing game rode out a minor scandal involving non-random prize distribution; it remains to be seen whether it can remain as popular with a host who is beginning to annoy once more.
The success of Deal has overshadowed the brief reign of Des Lynam on Countdown. Throughout the year, there were reports that the new boy was unsettled in his role, and culminated in his resignation after just two series and 14 months. He was a fine host, and we respect him for stepping down than turn in poor performances, or inconvenience others.
Amongst other Endemol formats, 8 Out of 10 Cats returned for a fresh run, but failed to bring any fresh jokes. The Games took place early in a cold spring, and the date can't have helped anyone perform.
Beauty and the Geek was a decent idea, but we found the execution lacked a certain something. It was watchable, unlike Best of the Worst, a show that could usefully have trimmed six letters from the start of its name. Or so we thought until we saw Unanimous, to which the Grate British Public rose up as one to say "No, not watching this." It may well have been cheaper to switch off the transmitters for an hour and send copies of the last few episodes out to the 250,000 viewers.
New format of the year was Codex, a quiz combining history, entertainment, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. A second series is in pre-production.
For much of the year, Channel 5 was going to be relegated to the also-rans pile. Perhaps it still should be. Britain's Psychic Challenge, Trust Me I'm a Holiday Rep, Make Me a Supermodel, and Interior Rivalry passed us entirely by. We would have dismissed the The All Star Talent Show were it not passable Friday night entertainment (at least when compared against C4's woeful offerings), and had it not caused a very minor scandal as the place where Lembit Opik MP met Gabriella and/or Irina Cheekygirl, for whom he raised the possibility of extending a work visa. Yes, we're dredging the barrel here...
Brainteaser, the original call-and-lose programme, continued, and was joined by some more overt overnight transmissions. New show of the year, almost by default, is In the Grid, a guessing game with Les Dennis and a modicum of tactical play. And a show that's not afraid to improve as it goes along.
Following the completion of the merger between NTL and Telewest, there was a little money for Flextech - the nominal owners of Challenge - to produce some original programming. Their attempts were along the right lines, but didn't quite hit the mark. Bullseye suffered badly from having its studio audience inserted from 1984 by the magic of computer trickery, and Celebrity Blackjack and Showbiz Darts were almost as dull as they sound. We were mildly diverted by Take It or Leave It, but might have been more interested if they'd stuck with Michael Barrymore as the show's host.
The extra money rolling round Flextech ensured that the company's flagship, UK Gold, could make some new shows of its own. Classic Comeback used Les Dennis's wit and skill to make an entertaining - if vapid - show, and a similar combination of the right host for the right format meant Danny Baker's Sitcom Showdown was a riot to see.
The BBC digital channels gave slightly fewer game shows than previous years - BBC4 had a one-off Top of the Form and a series of Never Mind the Full Stops, which aired without Lynne Truss. Speaking in July, the author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves said, "I wanted to wait until I had seen an episode before I appeared on it. I'm not sure why Julian Fellowes presents it - he's not written about grammar before. The whole show seemed a bit snobbish." Should have gone out on Radio 4, really. BBC3 gave us Annually Retentive, an unfunny spoof about a viable game show. CBBC had Raven: The Island, a show that was buttock-clenchingly boring for three weeks before springing into action for the final five episodes. Best of Friends remains remarkably popular, and we'll have to review it one of these years.
We're surprised to find that the sole new game show on ITV's digital arms was the imported Game Show Marathon, and More4 gave nothing more than That'll Test 'Em - still, if you're showing ten million episodes of Deal Or No Deal every day, there's not much time for anything else. Further down the dial came Skatoony, the completely bonkers animated quiz show on Cartoon Network, and three ideas from West London cable channel Sky Onc. Cirque de Celebrité was misspelled and their idea of "celebrity" was a local jeweller; The Big Idea fell flat when no-one bothered to call up and vote; and you can probably make up your own jokes about The Race and starting lines.
Radio 4 had two new formats of note, The Personality Test invited a panel to swot up about their guest host; and The Unbelievable Truth asked players to smuggle facts into otherwise outrageous lies. The Monday quiz slot suffered greatly when Nick Clarke was unavailable to record a series of Round Britain Quiz, and jammed in an extra series of X Marks the Spot in an effort to compensate. Mr Clarke died from cancer in November, he'll be missed.
We were rather hoping for someone to pick up The One (ABC/CBC). Perhaps the comedy channel, for there were microphones failing in mid-performance, a botch job on the sound mix, and the host in a stand-up row with one of the judges. All utterly normal for a Star Academy transmission, folks. After investing heavily in their concept, and doing the expensive work, ABC pulled The One after two episodes. Its viewing figures were comparable to those of Unanimous in the UK, but it still smacks of short-term thinking. The US version of Love Island was cancelled before it even reached the screens, smart thinking from the team there. Not so for Eamonn Holmes, whose The Rich List made the grand total of one episode on ABC before it, too, was off air.
Satellite channel of the year has been the French-language TV5. Not content with airing six editions of Questions Pour Un Champion (a version of Going for Gold) and Des Chiffres Et Des Lettres (the original of Countdown), the channel added Swiss quickie Tele La Question and French original La Cible into the mix. Then, just to put the icing on the cake, up popped long runs of La Carte Aux Tresors (a variant of Treasure Hunt) and Fort Boyard (a superior version of, er, Fort Boyard). We thoroughly approve.
Call And Lose
- "The transactional TV market has become increasingly competitive and Channel 4 no longer believes that the opportunity exists for it to make significant profits."
If one thing has dominated the game show world in 2006, it's been the slow-motion disaster of the call-and-lose channels. It's only two years since E4 and German giants Neun Live combined to fill up a few hours with experimental programming that didn't really work. Since then, the invitation to call at premium rates in the faint hope of winning a huge prize, but the near certainty of losing your call money, has mushroomed dramatically. At one point, almost thirty channels were running these promotions for substantial blocks of the day.
Looking back, the market topped out at the end of June, when the pioneering Quiz TV said that it was closing down with immediate effect. This surprising announcement came ahead of proposed regulations by OFCOM and the Gambling Board - the net effect may well be to deem these competitions of chance, not skill, and subject them to the same rules as small-scale lotteries. In effect, this would remove most of the profits from the industry, and cause it to fade away almost as quickly as it had grown up. The final rules will be published early in the new year.
Also due in the next few months is OFCOM's final ruling on advertising in children's television. Following this rule, OFCOM will conduct a review of the sector. This is clearly putting the cart before the horse, and no credible body would even think about conducting its operations this way. Unless it's being told what to do by Tessa Jowell, the minister for culture. It is to be expected that she cannot be bothered to pay attention to her regulator's inconsistencies, not when she can't be bothered to pay attention to the number of mortgages on her family home.
Also This Year
- "Noel has been selected for this job, at least in part, because he built his career around leading the public to believe the most vacuous nonsense. We treat every word he says with suspicion."
- Montenegro voted for independence in May. The referendum was fuelled by an argument with Serbia about who would represent the country at this year's Eurovision. The only casualty of the argument was the nation's appearance in Athens.
- The Games was graced by Shadow Chief Secretary To The Treasury Julia Goldsworthy Empee MP, who one would expect to be preparing her response to Gordon Brown's finance statement, not prancing about in a green leotard to the Kaiser Chiefs...
- Gareth Gates was dropped. "His latest material wasn't strong enough to compete with fresh talent ... like The X Factor."
- "Britain's Brightest Game Show!" We thought that the wardrobe department on Deal or No Deal might take exception to that last claim, but then we saw one of the contestant's shirts, and that's about all we saw for the next ten minutes.
- It's Eurovision night. A sweet and haunting little number about flowers and kittens and trolls wielding battleaxes and playing guitars with flamethrowers on the end. Six blokes in suits and ties step up to a row of microphones. Head to the hills, it's Westlife and a half!
- Put two and two together, and we get a problem that would tax the combined intellect of all the contestants on Love Island.
- What can you do with a thirty-foot tall slab of rock, other than climb up it? Get it to host The X Factor?
The Shows We Watched
The top ten game shows from 1 January to 9 December (the most recent ratings we have available) were:
|1||Dancing on Ice||ITV||4/03||11.7 million|
|2||Strictly Come Dancing||BBC1||9/12||10.35|
|3||I'm a Celebrity||ITV||1/12||10.05|
|5||Eurovision Song Contest||BBC1||20/05||8.3|
|6||How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?||BBC1||16/09||8.2|
|6||Saturday Night Takeaway||ITV||21/10||8.2|
The top fives for the major channels were:
|1||Strictly Come Dancing||9/12||10.35|
|2||Eurovision Song Contest||20/05||8.3|
|3||How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?||16/09||8.2|
|4||In It to Win It||19/08||7.25|
|3||Masterchef Goes Large||17/03||3.5|
|1||Dancing on Ice||4/03||11.7|
|2||I'm a Celebrity||1/12||10.05|
|4||Saturday Night Takeaway||21/10||8.2|
|2||Celebrity Big Brother||27/01||7.3|
|3||8 Out of 10 Cats - Big Brother Special||16/08||5.3|
|4||Deal or No Deal||10/03||4.7|
|5||Big Brother's Winner's Week||27/08||2.4|
|2||Britain's Psychic Challenge||17/02||1.05|
|3||Make Me a Supermodel||16/11||0.95|
|3||World's Strongest Man||1/12||0.95|
|5||All-Star Talent Show||13/10||0.9|
Leaders for the minor channels, receiving at least 200,000 viewers:
|E4||Big Brother's Big Mouth||18/05||1.675|
|Sky Onc||The Match||8/10||1.45|
|More4||Deal or No Deal||2/07||0.32|
To Matt Biddulph, Ben Hammersley, Tom Loosemore, Julie Rowbotham, Adam Lee, and others whose names we do not know. These people were the gurus behind Infax, the online BBC Programme Catalogue, which for six weeks this spring gave us access to basic data for every programme the Beeb broadcast since the mid-70s, and many older works, too. This little engine is powered by the BBC's faithful librarians, and it gave the accuracy of UKGS a shot in the arm. It's a shame that a "review phase" lasted from early June until the week before Christmas, and a pleasure to be able to use the data once more.
The Roll Of Honour
Hard Spell (2005) - Niall
Celebrity Big Brother - Chantelle Houghton
Big Brother (viewer's vote) - Pete
(press coverage) - Nikki
Just a Minute (winter) - Stephen Fry
(summer) - Iain Duncan Smith
(overall) - Paul Merton
Junior Mastermind - Domnhall
Mastermind - Geoff Thomas
Masterteam - Millionaires from Leeds (Diane Hallagan, Barry Simmons, Lee Warburton)
Dancing on Ice - Gaynor Faye
The Games - Jade Jones, Javine Hylton
University Challenge - Manchester (Chris Holmes, Gareth Aubrey, Joseph Meagher, Adrian Anslow)
University Challenge: The Professionals - Bodleian Library (John Wilby, Dorjan Sirola, Mike Heaney, Bob Wyatt)
Eurovision Song Contest - Lordi, performing Hard Rock Hallelujah (writer, Mr Lordi), representing Finland.
Junior Eurovision - Masha and Nastya Tolmachyov, performing Spring Jazz, representing Russia.
Countdown (May) - Conor Travers
(December) - Richard Brittain
Countdown Championship of Champions - Paul Gallen
Counterpoint - Graham Holliday
Strictly Dance Fever - Holly Robertson and Darrien Wright
I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (summer) - Rob Brydon
(winter) - Graeme Garden
The X Factor (celebrity) - Lucy Benjamin and Simon Cowell
(public) - Leona Lewis and Simon Cowell
Rostrum Camera - Ken Morse
Only Fools On Horses - Jenni Falconer
PokerFace - Sarah Lang
In It to Win It - Eleri Owen
Celebrity Love Island - Calum Best and Bianca Gascoigne
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? - Andrew Lloyd Webber and Connie Fisher
Who Wants to be a Millionaire - Ingram Wilcox
I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! - Matt Willis
Raven - Arnor
Strictly Come Dancing - Mark Ramprakash
Brain of Britain - Pat Gibson
And that'll do us for another year. Next week's Week will be a special edition, reviewing some of the shows doing well in Europe. Until then, stay safe, and good games to you.
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