Weaver's Week 2007-03-11

Weaver's Week Index

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

Another week, another scandal in the world of call television. Let's call it 0898gate.


On The Hook

ITV announced on Monday that it was suspending all of its premium-rate telephone services, including the overnight nonsense ITV Call And Lose. The replacement programmes included some old films and a few animated presentations, presumably including a woman digging into her handbag and finding some rawlplugs. The various terrestrial broadcasters announced that they had held an enquiry of their own, but they found that everything was OK.

ICSTIS chairman Alistair Graham told the BBC on Tuesday that viewer trust in premium-rate television call-ins was "at rock bottom", and that broadcasters needed to act in order to restore confidence. The following night saw the first nightly transmission of Celebrity Star Academy, where any problems with the phone voting is the least of the shows worries.

On Wednesday, one of Rupert Murdoch's organs splashed with claims that there had been problems with Eckoh's phone votes as far back as the January 2004 edition of ITV's I'm A Celebrity. Eckoh denied the problems, of course, and said it was confident that the Deloitte audit would "clear us of any suggestion of wrong doing." Mr. Murdoch's companies have recently purchased a blocking stake in ITV, and wish to be seen as credible rivals.

On Thursday, Channel 5 announced that it was pulling the premium-rate aspect of its long-running Brainteaser segment. The programme introduced a quickfire call-in round earlier in the year, but had come across times when absolutely no-one had given the correct answer. Instead of being honest with the viewing thousands, producers Endemol (trading as the ominous homonym Cheetah Television) displayed fictitious winners, including names of the production staff. C5's chief executive, Jane Lighting, said, "We are shocked and disappointed and wish to apologise unreservedly to our viewers. The production company involved has failed to meet the high standards we demand of our suppliers. We have decided to suspend any output which involves any premium-rate services and to appoint an external auditor."

ICSTIS, the premium-rate watchdog, said that it would consider calling in the police if there were serious allegations of fraud. Alistair Graham warned broadcasters and 0898-number providers that its arsenal also contained heavy fines. George Kidd, ICSTIS's chief executive, suggested that viewers might be told the current odds of winning anything, or the call volume. Broadcasters had ruled these measures out when the MPs published their report, but that was in the distant past of January, before 0898gate began.

On Friday, Brainteaser was replaced by some people gambling their property in Spain. ITV said that it was convinced it was acting within the rules, and said that it would have premium-rate telephone voting for Saturday's Dancing on Ice.

We'll have more on 0898gate in next week's Week.


RDF for Channel 4, 6.35pm Sunday

It would be easy to think, "Ah, Channel 4, reality show, treat it with all the contempt and derision we would attach to a soap opera with a ramshackle script." And let's be honest, Channel 4 has only got itself to blame for this response. Every night for a third of the year, there's a carefully-edited set of highlights, designed to promote the Big Brother soap opera, designed to encourage people to buy into the show's mythos, and to pay good money so that the scriptwriters can continue along their pre-ordained plots. From time to time, reality intrudes and the plots have to be re-written, but this is the exception.

The current incarnation of Shipwrecked - completely different from its beginnings as a survival documentary - owes a lot to Survivor, the hit ITV show that stuck sixteen people in a tropical island, gave them non-floating machetes, and asked them to vote each other out until only one remained. There's also a debt to Eden, an almost-forgotten Channel 4 show that stuck people on a tropical island, gave them emails and some mod cons, and voted people on and off at a whim. That aired in 2002; Shipwrecked ended its third and final series that year. The original format - sticking a dozen good-looking young people on a remote Pacific island and inviting them to survive for ten weeks - had been abolished in favour of even more episodes of fantasy drama Hollyoaks.

This column didn't go into Shipwrecked with particularly high expectations. They weren't met by the first episode, which was unceremoniously pulled from the repeat schedule in January, when some thin-skinned people took objection to the honestly expressed prejudices of one of the competitors. Not even this column cares to review a programme without seeing something of it.

The basic scenario is reasonably simple. Ten Young People (all 18-24, roughly) arrive in a lagoon in the Cook Islands. The five young gentlemen congregate on one island, and are given the name of "Sharks"; the five young ladies gather on another island, and are dubbed the "Tigers". An eleventh person arrives, spends three days with the Sharks, three days with the Tigers, and elects which island they wish to spend the remainder of the show on. Rinse and repeat for 19 (count 'em!) weeks, and the entire population of the islands is 29.

To add a little spice, it is possible for a member of one island to transfer to the other, but only if their rivals wish to accept them. It's also possible for someone to defect back, but they're then in place until the final. The island with the more residents at the final day is deemed the winner, and will split a prize fund of £70,000. Quick mathematics shows that this money will have to go at least 15 ways, meaning that no-one will come out with as much as £5000 from the programme.

If we understand the format correctly, the first tribe to reach the magic 15 members will win. Should one have a 14:12 lead with three weeks left, the next player can be almost assured of winning their share of the prize money. However, defections could change all that. There's also an individual prize, which will be voted by the viewers in a premium-rate SMS line, and will surely go to the young gentleman who most of the audience would like to, um, snog. With the current reliability of premium-rate lines, our money's on Mark Owen.

As we've mentioned, we didn't go into Shipwrecked expecting much, but we got a surprisingly large amount out from it. In just about every other reality show ever made, the objective is to ingratiate oneself with the viewing public, or to engineer out one or more members of the group. On Shipwrecked, the aim is to impress newcomers, and to retain the competitors as a group expands from a close-knit group of five to the winning size of 15. Will a sizable group fall apart when it is within sight of victory? This is a thoroughly unusual set-up, refreshing for both its novelty and its core value of tolerance and inclusion. Indeed, the bigot from episode one was acting in a decidedly non-bigoted manner by episode seven.

That said, there are some things that stick in the craw. Excluding advertising breaks, the shows are 50 minutes long, and even though each compresses a full week into one programme, there's generally too little action in each episode. We're not impressed with the use of "coming up" pointers before each advertising announcement, though Shipwrecked doesn't include the "here's what you missed" blatant filler from other programmes. Nor are we particularly overjoyed with the way the programme is treated as a soap opera, with storylines clearly flagged up in advance. Real life is not like that.

This isn't Survivor - there's no pretence that the competitors have to find their own food, not with cans of - well, something - in shot. The whole series was filmed last year, which explains how some of the contestants - though not their clothes - have already appeared in photographs in lesser weekly publications. The result, though, won't be known until the live final in June.

Will we be sticking with the show until then? Not every week, but if we have an hour to spare, there are far less entertaining things we could be watching.

University Challenge

Quarter-final: Manchester v Wadham Oxford

The full quarter-final draw is as follows:

  • Manchester v Wadham Oxford
  • Durham v Edinburgh
  • UCL v York
  • Warwick v Aberystwyth

It's worth noting that we didn't see the first quarter-final last year until the second week of April. Here we are, barely into March, and the contest is already heating up.

Manchester, semi-finalists in 2005, winners last year, beat Bristol and Reading to get here. Wadham beat Robinson Cambridge and Royal Holloway; as we intimated last week, Oxbridge interest could end tonight. Let's play!

Q: The scene of one of Margaret Thatcher's strongest speeches against closer European integration..?
Manchester, Tim Hawken: Bruges.

Thumper is impressed, that's saved him a long monologue. Another Hawken interruption takes the second starter. And the third. And, although Thumper does actually get to finish the fourth starter, it follows its predecessor in being correctly answered by Mr. Hawken. The first visual round is on film versions of Hamlet - the starter eludes both sides - after which the score is Manchester Hawken 90, Everyone Else 0. We'll play on.

Q: One Song to the Tune of Another..?
Manchester, Tim Hawken: I'm sorry, I haven't a clue

Then why did he buzz? Oh. We're a little early in chalking up the seventh correct answer to Mr. Hawken, as he is incorrect in his answer. Still, that streak of six correct starters is the longest we can remember. Wadham get a couple of starters, and a lot of bonuses, but we're already wondering how many starters will go to Hawken. The audio round is traditional Scottish songs, and goes to Wadham. Manchester's lead is 145-55.

Something unusual happens at the start of the third stanza: someone else from Manchester gets a starter right. Ciaran Lavin's is the ninth correct answer on the buzzers from Manchester tonight. However, with the speed the game is going tonight, and the high bonus conversion rate - Wadham is averaging 2/3 - the 100-point deficit is not insurmountable. Here's a good starter.

Q: 5 is classical, 10 is Romanesque, 20 is Gothic, 50 is Renaissance, and 100 is baroque in the context of which currency?
Wadham, Bryn Harris: The euro.

That's the middle of a run of three starters for Wadham, after which Manchester's lead is down to a shaky 45 points. Mr. Lavin restores some confidence with a starter, and it's clear that neither side will do well in the second visual round, on bits of motor neurones. Manchester's lead is a slightly more healthy 180-110.

Five minutes to play, Manchester needs two starters, and Wadham needs to get a move on. Manchester's first starter is on towns in Denmark, but Wadham gets a couple to close the gap down a little. Computer compression programs give Manchester the second starter that should confirm their victory. A starter identifying Dewey Decimal numbers proves the value of knowing about libraries is greater than the value of a chalice. In the end, Manchester's win is by 230-190.

Thumper is plain wrong to say that Wadham wasn't on good form; both sides were, and it is a shame that we must lose either. After storming away with eight starters by half-way, Tim Hawken was silent in the second half, and finished with 104 points. Bryn Harris was the best buzzer for Wadham, six starters and 86 points. Manchester answered 20/42 bonuses correctly and had two missignals; Wadham made 19/30 bonuses with one missignal.

Next match: Edinburgh v Durham

This Week And Next

The grand final of The Con Test last weekend was an interesting affair. For starters, it's only the third time in British television history that we've been able to sit down and watch a programme knowing that someone will win a million, but not having an inkling who would win. (The Survivor finals were so one-sided as to be completely predictable.)

Though the questions were difficult, and the stakes were high, there was still time for some banter with the hosts (one of whom had been nominated the 35th sexiest man in Britain, the other hadn't) and a rendition of Asteroid, the Pearl and Dean theme. At the end of the show, Dominic Jackson from Oxfordshire won one million pounds, and says that he wants to go on Dragons' Den, as one of the benefactors. According to the BBC, Mr. Jackson also plans to renew his pilot's license, take part in the Le Mans 24-hour race, and repair his mother's leaking roof.

Other news this week: Carphone Warehouse has decided not to renew its sponsorship of Big Brother. No charges will be brought over alleged racism in the most recent series of Celebrity Big Brother. Kate Thornton and Louis Walsh will not be returning to The X Factor.

BARB ratings for the week to 25 February, and Dancing on Ice was the clear winner, taking 9.05 million viewers against the back end of the rugby. The Con Test took 5.5 million, pipping When Will I Be Famous, which went out on a high of 5.25m. TV Burp took 5.1m, Question of Sport 5.05m.

No surprise to see Dragons' Den (3.7m) hit the top on BBC2, but the big surprise is that Masterchef Goes Large (3.35m) has moved ahead of Deal or No Deal (3.3m). Link had 3.15m, UC 2.85m, Ready Steady Cook and Buzzcocks both 1.9m.

Pop Idol US on ITV2 had 765,000, extended Dancing on Ice coverage 540,000. Deal on More4 took 240,000, QI on G2 155,000, and Buzzcocks on the same channel 130,000. Challenge's top audience was for The Price is Right at 10.30 on Sunday morning.

Coming up next week, we've the performance part of A Song for Europe (next Saturday). The winner to be announced on May 13, after the Beeb's counted up all the postcards, weighed all the housebricks, doused all the smoke signals, and worked out who they've got to beat in Helsinki. Before that, we've a new series of Castaway (BBC1, 9pm tonight), the final of Masterchef Goes Large (BBC2, from Tuesday), and Comic Relief fun-and-charity gubbins continue all week.

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