Weaver's Week 2007-07-08
'Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.'
Thirty thousand wigs and woollen blankets.
Peter Jones Productions for ITV, 19-26 JuneHumphrey Lyttelton Memorial Theatre. There's The London Studios, home to many great LWT productions. Then come the curious attractions of Gabriel's Wharf, and the buildings at Stamford Wharf, in the shadow of the OXO tower. Dotted along the bank are wooden jetties, allowing workers to load and unload from barges as they come up and down the bustling river. Behind these fascinating riverfront scenes runs the busy and exceedingly dull road called Upper Ground.
Also found in this part of London are three plastic sheets, bearing the single word "Tycoon" in large and self-important capital letters. They've been put there by Peter Jones, a member of the Dragons' Den panel, and a man whose large bank balance has given him the impression that he can flog any old rubbish to anyone, and spin a profit from it. And, whaddya know, he's right! Peter Jones – a man who eschews the word failure in favour of the euphemism feedback – has made a television series that makes the Upper Ground look interesting, and sold it to a national television station.
Behind the glitz, behind the plastic sheets bearing the word "Tycoon" in large and self-important capital letters, is a common-or-garden office. It's been made up to look like a vibrant place where exciting things happen, but it's a common-or-garden office. And, in this common-or-garden office, there's a common-or-garden reality television programme being made.
Peter Jones has invested money into six projects, and wants to see some return for his money. He's seeded sixty grand into these businesses. For one business, the one whose owner can grovel the most, or come up with the best plan, he'll double it. And he'll double the profits any business makes in the first three weeks. But if the venture is a failure – er, if the venture is a feedback – he'll waste no time in closing it down.
Now, here's the series' first problem. By his own admission, Mr. Jones is worth a lot. His net worth runs comfortably into nine figures. Before the decimal point. So let's scale this down so that we're talking in terms of on the wealth of your average Briton. In this world of reduced wealth, Mr. Jones has given each of these businesses a decent bottle of wine. To the best party host, he'll give a second bottle of wine. And he'll dole out handfuls of peanuts if he enjoys himself at the party.
But Mr. Jones is not your average party guest. Nor is he the sort who will make scintillating conversation with everyone he meets. No, he's the sort who will hover by the bottle of wine he's brought, and insist on using this as a conversation-starter with everyone who comes within hailing distance. He must go to some strange parties, because rather than being ostracised as that bore in the corner, Mr. Jones attracts acolytes eager to sip from his bottle of grapey goodness. They come up with such nonsense as "Failure is not an option" when everyone knows that over 80% of these businesses will not see the end of the summer. And that they should be saying, "Feedback is not an option."
Rather than act as the sage and slightly aloof businessman, dispensing wisdom and advice alongside his bottles of wine, Mr. Jones insists on taking a very hands-on approach to his production. He shamelessly manipulates the contestants' emotions, expecting them to gang up on each other, to celebrate their successes and bury their failures. Bury their feedbacks! Gah! We don't claim to know everything about how to run a profit-making enterprise, but we're sure that it's a poor move to rub the opposition's nose in it.
Indeed, some of Mr. Jones's advice is blatantly wrong. In the first episode, he ripped into an early mock-up of a newspaper for older children by saying, "my daughter could do better. And she's 11." Then he dangles a very large stick in front of the aspiring press baron, by saying, "You have competition. It's run by one of the biggest, most respected editors this country has ever seen." Kelvin MacKenzie? Eve Pollard? Rosie Boycott? David English, making a special guest appearance nine years after his death? Er, no. Piers Morgan. Who, by a complete coincidence, had only just finished appearing in Britain's Got Talent, and whose career of lies we recounted just last week. Mercifully, Mr. Moron was unavailable, as he was spending time recording America's Got Talent.
Unfortunately for our budding press baron, Darren Lyons (yes, the hedgehog-haired picture editor from ITV2's recent Deadline series) was not unavailable, as he was busily filming another show for ITV. Funny how these things happen to work out, isn't it. Now, it's rare for this column to shout with rage at the television, but it happened when Mr. Lyons gave his very limited wisdom. "Your paper has to be celebrity led. It can't be educational; kids get enough education at school," we're told. It's remarkable how a man with such a great talent can peddle such a complete load of small-minded twaddle. Why does he suggest that the paper has to feature nonentities and piffle? Because that's how he makes his living! He only knows about selling celebrity photographs. He knows nothing about politics, nothing about literature, nothing about art. Mr. Lyons is very good at what he does, but what he does is so exceedingly lowbrow that it may be a crime against culture. He is setting his sights at the gutter, and still expects people not to reach those very mediocre ambitions. The result of his advice? One feedbacked contestant.
If there's one thing that Tycoon gets right, it's the way Mr. Jones closes his businesses. He takes the magnate out onto one of the piers in the Thames, and delivers his lectures there. This is a dramatic scene – it's a location that the public can see but can't normally visit (well, not without hopping over locked gates), and there's a certain undertow of it being a dangerous place. "Tonight, your beesnees a-sleep with ze feeshes," is how we'd rather like the show to end. Sadly, it doesn't, preferring to knock off with a simple announcement and some clips from next week's show.
Clips that most viewers won't see – after two weeks of attracting very small audiences in the Tuesday 9pm slot, Tycoon has been pulled, and the remaining episodes will be dumped in the contractual obligation Monday night slot for feedbacks. Tonight, your tee-vee show a-sleep with ze feeshes.
One of Endemol's many shell companies for ITV, 5pm weekdays
The game, then. At one end of the studio is a giant washing machine, only instead of containing dirty socks and smelly shirts, it's got one hundred gold-painted ping-pong balls. Each ball flips open to reveal an amount of money. Twelve of these balls are allowed to drop out of the washing machine, and fall along some long chutes into a giant petri dish, itself slowly rotating. This has the effect of mixing them up. Into this dish, hostess Amanda drops four more gold-painted ping-pong balls, each with the word "Killer" inside. The sixteen balls are further mixed up, and four each drop into the player's chutes. The mixing and spinning takes a couple of minutes to complete, and this is often the most attractive part of the show.
The players have four perspex stands – two short ones at the front, two larger ones at the back. Without opening the ping-pong balls, they arrange them as they see fit. In turn, each player opens the two balls at the front, displaying the cash (or lack thereof) printed inside for all to see. Only then can each player peek at what is in their other two balls. A brief discussion then ensues, invariably along these lines:
A: "I've got £50,000 and £60,000."
B: "Liar. You've got a killer, I've got £20,000 and £550."
C: "I think A is fibbing."
A: "I'm not lying, but B has clearly got a killer."
And so it goes on and on and on. Just before we begin to wonder if the commercial break might come as a welcome relief, there's a round of voting. The contestants must eliminate one of their number, and do so by passing to Amanda an oval-shaped piece of card displaying the name of the person they'd like to vote off as The Weakest Link. Er... wrong channel. Whoever gets the most votes has their balls binned (dropped down a handily-placed plastic tube) and takes the walk of shame to an arbitrary position just off stage, where they're cast into darkness without so much as a piece to camera.
Add two cash balls, one killer, give each player five balls, rinse, repeat, insert plug for ATV Today where viewers can catch up on Billy, the three-legged budgie from Malvern who has been taking hopping lessons.
Two players left, and they hope to have been given lots of cash balls, and eliminated most of the killers. Just to add spice, Amanda will now add an extra killer into the mix. Of the eleven balls on the final table, the players, in turn, must choose a ball to bin, and a ball to win. The ball they bin is out of the game, the one they win goes on a rack. If it's a cash ball, fine, they're playing for that amount of money. If, however, it's one of the killers, their total so far is divided through by 10. So, a line up of £100, killer, £10, killer, killer would leave a grand non-total of (100/10+10)/10/10 = (10+10)/100 = Twenty New Pence.
By a complete coincidence, Twenty New Pence was the entire budget devoted to the end game, in which the players must decide whether they will share the accumulated riches with each other, or whether one will attempt to steal it from the other. As another Birmingham comedian with a link to the colour orange said, "To share, or to shaft."
Almost everything about this programme is ripped off from somewhere else. The title, a description of David Beckham, an association footballer. The logo, every advertising slogan from the late 1960s. The set, a design the Top Of The Pops producers rejected as too gaudy. The banter between contestants, quietly purloined from Antan Dec's The Con Test, but leaving the levity behind. And the ball-picking routine borrows the mystic mumbo-jumbo we hoped to have left with the dismally-attired bumpkin in a Bristol studio.
And yet... and yet Golden Balls is not a complete feedback. Failure. It is a painfully slow game, it dangles a six-figure payout in front of the contestants yet rarely pays more than a few grand. But, the two argument interludes aside, it's not particularly painful to watch, and has less obviously wrong than ITV's last effort at a daytime guessing game. There is, at least, some approximation to skill and nous involved here.
We can't rate Golden Balls as a classic of the genre. We can say that it's no less tedious than anything else ITV has shown in this slot over recent years – hardly a ringing endorsement.
This Week And Next
What we're assured is a pilot episode for a new run of Face the Music went out on BBC4 last week. John Sergeant presided over a good-natured half-hour, in which all of the contestants performed a comedy turn. Wouldn't say no to a longer run, though could they lose that red backdrop? Too much like Never Mind the Full Stops for our liking.
BBC director-general Mark Thompson has raised an eyebrow at ITV, accusing the independent network of copying many of the Beeb's most popular programmes. Tycoon, according to Mr. Thompson, was "very like The Apprentice and there's possibly a bit of Dragons' Den in there." He also wondered how similar Grease is the Word was to How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?
Jana Bennett, the BBC's Head of Creative Thinking, has proposed tax breaks on children's television production. There's a precedent for such an idea, as UK film makers already enjoy a lower rate on their profits. This is also more likely to enjoy government support than the idea of a quota for home-grown productions.
Premium-rate regulator ICSTIS has fined Eckoh £150,000 for a serious breach of regulations concerning the "You Say We Pay" contest on the Richard and Judy show. We'll have a full report in the next Week; readers can read the adjudication on the ICSTIS site: http://www.icstis.org.uk/pdfs_adjuds/eckoh_oralhearing.pdf
BARB ratings for the week to 24 June, and the most popular game show is something of a surprise. For all its critical panning, for all the bad reviews we've given it, The National Lottery People's Quiz was the most viewed game show, attracting a whole 4.4 million viewers. No-one mention how Britain's Got Talent had almost three times as many viewers a week earlier and we'll be fine. The Great British Village Show came second on 4.1m, with Big Brother close behind. ITV's Saturday duopoly were, therefore, both beaten by competitive cake-baking – Millionaire had 3.75m, and a behind-the-scenes at Celeb Stars in Their Eyes 3.45m. 8 Out of 10 Cats pulled 3.05m.
QI and Deal or No Deal had 2.4m, Link 2m, BB On the Couch and Old News both had 1.95m. The People's Quiz Wildcard lost viewers as the week progressed, Monday's 1.55m was the best. Let Me Entertain You also lost ground, peaking on Tuesday with 1.5m. A behind-the-scenes at Buzzcocks had 1.35m. The Countdown final did not make Channel 4's top 30.
A new leader on the digital tier, America's Got Talent had 955,000 people gawping at their goggleboxes on ITV2. BB Big Mouth (575,000) and Little Brother (505,000) are still packin' 'em in on E4, while Come Dine With Me (215,000) is more popular than Deal or No Deal (205,000) for the More 4 viewers. On CITV, Jungle Run had 195,000; on G2, QI had 140,000. Challenge's most-watched show was Sunday evening Family Fortunes, as seen by 70,000.
Listeners to BBC Radio 4's Failure programme... sorry, we'll take that again. Listeners to BBC Radio 4's Feedback programme will hear an interview with Tom Sutcliffe, the new host of Round Britain Quiz, and some choice excerpts from the programme's history. Radio 4, just before 8.20 tonight, or on Listen Again until next Friday.
New shows before then include Fighting Talk Any Other Business (Radio 5, tonight at 7pm or when the tennis finishes), The Sorcerer's Apprentice (BBC1, BBC2, CBBC from Monday), and the return of Mastermind, University Challenge (BBC2, 7.30 and 8pm Monday) and Mock the Week (BBC2, 9pm Thursday).
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