A couple of bits and bobs on moving the goalposts in game shows

If you are fortunate enough to appear on a TV game show, whether it’s for several weeks on Going for Gold or two minutes on Take Your Pick, you win or you lose. Either way, you’ve had a lovely day. Sometimes however, it isn’t quite as clear cut as that.

As this blog has examined on various occasions, the problem with humans is that they will insist on being human – in other words, making mistakes. Apart from the time Metal Mickey briefly hosted Runaround, game show hosts, executives and production staff are human. Therefore, contestants who should have lost will slip through the net and win, while contestants who should have gotten a second chance get bundled off with their BFH.

Marcus Berkmann wrote in his excellent book Brain Men (1999), with regard to a spectacularly duff pub quiz question one week, that contestants were expected to get “the right wrong answer, as opposed to the wrong right one.” With this in mind, here are a few examples of rule changes and errors, from the subtle to the unsubtle, that went out to millions on national television as opposed to one man and his dog down the local.

Fifteen to One

This blog usually takes most of its sources from Fifteen to One, and this post is no different. In 1989, a subtle rule change allowed no fewer than three future champions who had theoretically ‘lost’ to come back and win the series. The specific rule change was that if a losing contestant had attained a score which would have made that year’s Grand Final, even if they were standing at the end or had been knocked out, they were allowed another go.

The classic example was three time champion Anthony Martin. Already a finalist in series 2, he was knocked out in series 4 on a score of 203 taking one question too many. Between series, the new rule was introduced, and Martin went on to win series 5, 8, and 11.

Glen Binnie, the champion of series 12 in 1993, was in deep trouble in a heat back in series 8. Clawing back five consecutive questions with one life left, he scored 141. It wasn’t enough to defeat Mike Watson, who with 141 and two lives left went through to the Grand Final, but given the par score for that series’ showpiece was 132, Binnie was invited back and the rest is history. Watson, who finished third in series 8, fell at the first round in his next appearance.

The other champion who benefitted from some rather judicious officiating was series 18 winner Arnold O’Hara. His first appearance, towards the back end of series 15, saw him up against Lesley Webster, who scored 262 in the previous series to notch the finals board trophy, and was a multiple winner in her own right. Despite only getting one question wrong in the entire show, O’Hara finished second with 133 (2) after Webster’s five consecutive questions saw her finish on 141 (1). Even though neither score was enough for that year’s Grand Final, O’Hara was allowed back.

It’s fascinating to see two great players compete in the same show – arguably signalling the end of one era and the beginning of another. One other example of this was serial Grand Finalist Simon Holmes, who in series 16 had the misfortune of being up against Leslie Booth, the two time defending champion. Holmes defied the odds to win that show, and would notch up 11 appearances himself. Daphne Fowler’s run at the end of the regular Fifteen to One series came about because her previous appearance, in series 4 in 1989, saw her come up against multiple winner and series 7 champion Thomas Dyer.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

At the end of it all, with Fifteen to One, Mastermind and the like, the prestige is important but at heart, they are just games – and the appeal is to play the game for its own sake. Why would anyone else go on Fifteen to One with the odds of winning so much more remote than getting both first round questions wrong and looking a pillock on national television, for instance? But with Millionaire, it’s all about the money. Does it magnify errors?

The classic example, when Millionaire could still make front page news, was when Tony Kennedy won £125,000 by answering that the minimum strokes with which a tennis player could win a set was 24. This answer was adjudged as correct, however the actual correct answer is 12 – a player could theoretically win games one, three and five (or two, four and six naturally) with 12 strokes by serving aces, and then not face a stroke in the other games with 12 double faults from their opponent. Two wrongs normally don’t make a right, but in this instance Kennedy was allowed to keep his money, clarified here by Chris Tarrant.

The other incident which made serious headlines – partly because it involved celebrities rather than Joe Bloggs – was when Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen and his wife Jackie got the £1,000,000 question wrong. The question, “Translated from the Latin, what is the official motto of the United States?”, was answered with ‘In God We Trust’. The horror as the ‘correct’ answer, ‘One Out of Many’, flashed up, was a picture. However, it was later argued that the question was too ambiguous – ‘In God We Trust’ is certainly known as a US motto, and the Latin the question referred to, ‘E Pluribus Unum’, was never codified by law. The explanation from Tarrant this time (at 36:41 in the below video) was a little less convincing – and it does make you wonder whether the same thing would have occurred had it been on the civvies version – while the Llewellyn Bowens took all of about three seconds before deciding to walk with the money the second time around.

Are there any other famous cases of quiz shows getting questions particularly wrong or changing the rules? Let us know in the comments.

The Krypton Factor and general knowledge: Analysing changes over the years

kf7

Back in 2010, when The Krypton Factor comeback was well and truly swinging, the good people at Bother’s Bar did a superb analysis of the general knowledge round, the climax of television’s toughest quiz show. Its conclusion, with one point on offer for correct answers and one point deducted for wrong answers, was that far from being too heavily weighted as a final round, it was not weighted enough.

The debate over the general knowledge round, and whether it is fairly weighted, is a subject close to Game Show Gallery’s heart; and as this publication has previously explored, it’s a key part of analysing the ‘over before it’s over’ rule. You have to ensure your format remains competitive until the end to stop viewers from switching off early, but equally you have to make sure there is enough interest in the opening half, so not everything rests on the end game.

The Krypton Factor, with 22 points (10/6/4/2) on offer for five rounds before the finale in its later series, is a perfect case study. Take the 1991 series for instance; both Tony Hetherington and Paul Evans won all five opening rounds of their respective heats, and Hetherington would win that year’s Grand Final. With perfect Krypton Factors of 50, and the nearest contestant only on a theoretical 30, if the general knowledge round was decided by the same metric, then it was game over, switch over to something else and see you again next week. Not dissimilar to A Question of Sport replacing the classic one minute round with a more generic ‘on the buzzer’ finale, by weighting general knowledge as two points per correct answer, two points deducted per incorrect answer over 90/105/120 seconds (whichever was in vogue), more than 10 points could be – and occasionally was – scored.

The reviewer at UKGameshows.com clearly sets their stall out on the issue. “One problem…was that, all too often, a contestant who was considerably behind could win if he/she was exceptionally good at general knowledge,” it reads. “This always seemed unfair on those contestants who had shown more all-round abilities…only to be pipped at the last minute if their general knowledge was not so good.”

Bother’s Bar remarked in 2010: “If anyone wants to compile statistics from older series…go on right ahead.” It’s worth noting at the start that it’s difficult to do a forensic analysis because of variables at play – being able to interrupt, and so on – but without further ado, here we go with some of the more interesting examples from the classic series.

1978

Exhibit A: only the second ever series of Krypton, and the rules here were two points correct, two points deducted incorrect, but with a pedestrian 165 seconds (2:45) to play with:

krypton factor 1 PROPER

Number of missed questions: 6

Yep, a whopping 23 questions were asked in that final round, meaning a potential 46 points on offer. In mitigation, the round was nowhere near as quick fire as in later series – Gordon Burns’ insistence on saying players’ full names when they buzz, as well as preceding early buzzes with ‘interrupted by…’ is rather quaint – but it’s still an awful lot of points to play for. It’s also interesting to note how the rather nice element of Krypton general knowledge questions linking to each other through a common word was in play pretty much from the show’s beginning.

One minor thing to note with the early editions; contestants would in an earlier round be given three questions which could not be passed over, from which they could gain a maximum of six points. It could be argued their general knowledge had already been tested going into the final round, so contestants far behind by the time of round six could not particularly complain if they were out of contention.

Here’s another example from the same series, but bizarrely with 210 seconds (3:30) to play with.

Update: As the good people at Bother’s Bar pointed out, the time limit for the general knowledge round probably depended on how much time there was to run in the show. It’s also worth noting that until the mid 80s, the format we know of 10/6/4/2 was not sacrosanct. The clue is that in the first two examples, the total scores do not add up to 110 (i.e 22 x 5).

krypton factor 2

Number of missed questions: 1

Despite the extra 45 seconds, only one more question is asked, therefore making 48 points to go at. In both cases, however, the leading contestant won the contest. Ken Wilmshurst, the runner up in clip one (two contestants going through from the semi finals back then), would eventually win the 1978 title.

1987

Exhibit B: an episode featuring the famous Marian Chanter. Here, it’s 100 seconds, at a quicker pace, but answers only get 1 point added or deducted either way.

krypton factor 3

Number of missed questions: 0

17 questions get asked, meaning, well, 17 points to play for. Again, the leading contestant going into the round wins the contest, and if the scores were two points either way instead of one, the winner would not have changed although the positions would have (Chanter 34, Bruno 32, Laverty 30, Wallace 24). It’s worth noting that no missed questions and plenty of interruptions mean more questions get asked in this instance, but was this a step too far in the other direction?

1991

Exhibit C. Another thing to note with the General Knowledge round was that, not only was it a chance for contestants significantly behind to overhaul their deficit and win, it was also a chance for players even further behind to stake their place for the highest scoring runner up position.

krypton factor 4

Number of missed questions: 1

The Group B final featured the aforementioned Evans and Hetherington, two contestants who blitzed their respective heats. Evans blitzed the group final with an 18 point lead going into the final round, but Hetherington scored enough to claim his place in the Grand Final as runner up, and would of course go on to win the final – with Evans in second. Is this fair – or is this fairer than the 1987 alternative?

1992

Exhibit D, and possibly the greatest exponent of the general knowledge round in Krypton’s history. Before that however, a 1992 group B heat, with 90 seconds and two points for right or wrong.

In this instance the leading contestant, Janet Morris, was 24 points ahead so it was all over bar the shouting anyway – and impossible if the one point rule was still enforced. In the end, Morris won by 16 points after Jackie Harte scored 10 points (seven right answers, two wrong) in 90 seconds. With three misses and 16 questions being asked in the round, it was technically possible to overhaul the lead. Again, is this fair?

krypton factor 5

Number of missed questions: 2

Now this is what you call dominating a round, going from 12 points behind to being a 10 point victor. Andrew Craig, who perhaps unsurprisingly won the Grand Final after winning the Group C final in such spectacular fashion, answered the first seven questions of the round correctly, meaning he had clawed himself in front before anybody else got a look in. It’s worth noting that, unlike his heat and group final, Craig led going into the final of the Grand Final, but is gaining 24 points in a single round when 22 are on offer in total for other rounds unfair, or just excellent play?

1993

One year on, and again another change has been made to the General Knowledge round, moving from 90 seconds to 75. Was Craig’s dominance the previous year a factor? It’s a possibility, although other issues – such as the implementation of a commercial break for the first time leading to a shorter show – are at play.

krypton factor 6

Number of missed questions: 2

In the Group A final, only 13 questions were asked, meaning 26 points on offer, but with three wrong answers and two misses, only 10 points were scored in the round. Is this redressing the balance, or are there not enough points to play for?

The Grand Final of 1993 was a fascinating situation, with three contenders six points behind the leader. Alex Mowat and Norman Kenvyn both came from behind in their group finals to secure their Grand Final berths, while Eddie Jackson performed superbly in general knowledge in the group C final (behind the overall winner, Tim Richardson) to grab his place. Here, 15 questions (including one miss) were asked in 75 seconds – one every five seconds, for those whose maths is not so sharp – but Richardson’s nerve held to win.

Conclusion

As befitting a show which ran for 18 years, The Krypton Factor did subtly change, or at least it did until 1995 where it revamped completely before succumbing. The General Knowledge round, whilst always the climax, had arguably the most changes over the years.

Assuming all being fair, the maximum a contestant should be able to gain in the final round over an opponent is eight points – but enacting the over before it’s over rule means this can be extended so long as a contestant performs exceptionally in the round. Tony Hetherington’s performance in the 1991 group B final is a case in point, gaining 12 points over other competitors albeit in 90 seconds. Similarly, should dominating one of the six rounds – as would usually be the case in the late 80s editions – score only five or six points?

From this reviewer’s perspective, one point for correct answers in the general knowledge round does seem too difficult to claw back a lead. With this in mind, we argue Krypton got it right towards the end, with the 1993 series of two points and 75 seconds seeming the fairest solution. Either way, hopefully this shines some light on a fascinating issue, and how important specific mechanisms are within game show formats.

Is it time for traditional TV to abandon the balloon? Exploring fresh game show ideas

Colorful hot-air balloons flying over the mountain

Picture credit: iStock.com/pat138241

It’s official. Man the lifeboats, women and children first: the UK game show, and television industry in general, is running out of new show ideas.

Don’t believe this publication? If you’re a regular listener to the TV Podcast – and if not, why not? – you will notice a general theme of the two presenters, Chuck Thomas and Greg Scott, with years of TV experience between them, metaphorically banging their heads in frustration at the dearth of ideas from tellyland.

Still not convinced? No less an authority than Sir Peter Bazalgette, former creative director of Endemol Group worldwide and the man responsible for making shows such as Big Brother and Deal or No Deal huge hits, recently bemoaned recent shows as “predictable” and told the Independent: “In the past 10 years there have been fewer blockbuster hits than in the previous 10 years.”

The key to this decline, Bazalgette argues, is the slow death of what he calls the ‘balloon debate mechanism’ format. It’s simply ubiquitous; the concept of having x contestants, then eliminating one each week until a winner emerges, can be found from The X Factor, to The Apprentice, Strictly Come Dancing, Big Brother…the list goes on.

And it’s safe to say things didn’t go swimmingly with the BBC and ITV’s flagship hits over the past year. The X Factor got fewer ratings for one of its Sunday show than the Antiques Roadshow on BBC1. TV critics were falling over themselves to stick the boot in. Stephen Kelly, in the Radio Times, decided to let off a bit of steam in a preview. “Who will make Olly Murs say ‘wow!’ the loudest?” he mused. “Who will sing a song that has a completely tenuous link to this week’s theme? Who will remember who left last week? Will someone wear a cap? How about a backwards cap? What’s Louis Walsh up to these days? I hope he’s well,” and so on. Despite rumours to the contrary, The X Factor will be returning this year, although it was not a seamless process.

As for The Apprentice, Stuart Heritage, writing for the Guardian, argued it was time to let the axe fall. “I’m sick of the contestants; of their witless self belief and their sweatflop desperation and the way they truly believe that participating in what basically amounts to a succession of dismal Generation Game sausage-making skits demonstrates their unknowable business acumen,” he argued.

Has the tide turned, with lots of head scratching to come? Not entirely – in the same breath as slagging off The Apprentice, Heritage is effusive with his praise for The Great British Bake Off, which also follows the ‘balloon debate mechanism’ theme.

But we’re getting there.

Jordan Hass, a friend of Game Show Gallery and a fellow observer of game show trends, argues: “We don’t need a Generation Game knockoff, we don’t need a Millionaire clone. What is around you, and can you make a decent show based on it?”

Over the past two years, this blog has covered various themes which, generally speaking, mark a sea change from the traditional game show to the modern equivalent. The increasing use of padding and contestant sob stories to fill up time; the prevalence of shows which require a gambling element as opposed to general knowledge alone (or at all); the move to lengthen shows from 30 minutes to 45, and 45 to 60, and so on. Many of these, like the balloon debate mechanism, are trends indicative of a television industry moving forward. But is the industry becoming reliant on it?

Take Flockstars, a show which – for some reason – paired celebrities with sheepdogs and, as de rigeur, eliminated one contestant per week for six weeks until the final. The Telegraph described it as “embarrassing” and argued it would “be more interesting to stare at the stains on an old padded tea cosy for 27 minutes than to be trapped into viewing the ovine F-word of all reality TV flops.” The viewing figures for the first show were a “below slot average” 2.5 million. Surely this sends a message to the industry that this style is rapidly losing ground?

One solution is to have these shows as one off specials. Of course, it doesn’t provide the security of six weeks in the calendar – not to mention the money side, as well as the reduced exposure for the celebrities if they’re only doing a one-off show – but it stops things from becoming stale. Hass argues you need to go a step further, and truly bring back ‘event’ television, almost harking back to a bygone era. “The last one that might have worked [is] Deal or No Deal in the US, but they usually don’t work because it’s overkill to strip the show for the entire week,” he explains.

“For a game show to be an event, it needs to be something different that’s genre breaking. Deal was a strict luck show, Millionaire was the scenery…I feel if you need an ‘event’ you’ll need to make it a show that only aired once, that is so unpredictable that nobody would know.”

This makes sense; ramp up the marketing, get the buzz around a one off show – which of course makes the balloon mechanism impossible – and leave the audience wanting more. Pragmatism does naturally kick in – and the likes of Netflix giving audiences the flexibility to binge watch shows at will means it is a risk – but the question has to be asked: if a one off piece is still valid for drama, why not for game shows?

500 Questions debuted on the US in May 2015, and was promoted as an ‘event’, similar to Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? The gist is simple; contestants have to answer 500 questions without getting three wrong in a row. It ran for only seven episodes, but across a whole week. Hass argues the show did not ‘flop’, rather ‘it was just overkilled by having it on every day, and making it a serious show.’ “The reason was because of the returning champion and they probably wanted audiences to be reminded of them.” The show has been picked up by ITV for the UK – although the page on ITV’s website leads to a worrying 404 – for four episodes later this year. Perhaps this indicates a better trend.

Another example of a programme in this ballpark over recent years was Red or Black, a show which Hass argues ‘screams’ a VIP format. The show, which only ran 14 episodes across a year through two series in the UK, is a natural fit for the ‘less is more’ mentality because of the scope of the top prize – £1 million on a 50/50 gamble. “A show like Red or Black would have been better if the show only showed up monthly or only four times a year,” he says.

Perhaps this is being too ambitious. But these are worrying times for the traditional TV industry. Technology entrepreneur James McNab recently examined the content of streaming providers Netflix and Amazon and concluded: “The real billion dollar question is how long can the traditional TV industry survive while Netflix and Amazon continue to plunder and pillage every genre of TV and film?”

There is an opportunity afoot, and with great opportunity comes great responsibility. But it will take something a little braver than Flockstars et al for the traditional TV industry to achieve it.

The greatest UK game show host of all time: Forsyth, Monkhouse…or someone else?

monkhouseforsyth

The question of the UK’s greatest game show host of all time is a fantastic one for the local pub (or at least the ones Game Show Gallery frequents). When the discussion is raised, the obvious names are always mentioned; Bruce Forsyth and Bob Monkhouse. But are there any other pretenders to the throne?

A quick history lesson

Despite sharing various game shows over the years, from Family Fortunes/Feud to The Price is Right and so on, UK game show culture is slightly different to its US brethren. While the history starts at similar times – UK radio game show Spelling Bee in 1938, and the US’ Truth or Consequences in 1941, the paths would diverge over time. Notably, while the US market was stagnant in the 1990s, the UK market was thriving – partly due to the prize restrictions from the Independent Broadcasting Authority being lifted.

The key difference, however, is how the US and the UK – two countries separated by a common language, in the words of George Bernard Shaw – sees its game show hosts. In America, the most fondly remembered game show hosts fall into two categories; big stars, or hosts who have seemingly been around forever. Richard Dawson would go into the former category, while the latter includes Bob Barker’s 35 year stint as host of The Price is Right, Alex Trebek’s 31 years and counting on Jeopardy!, and so on.

In the UK, there are plenty of examples of longevity; the late Richard Whiteley’s 23 years in the chair for Countdown, for instance, and the late Magnus Magnusson, who hosted Mastermind for 25 years. While Jeremy Paxman would never consider himself in a million years a game show host, he is about to clock up 21 years as host of University Challenge, following Bamber Gascoigne’s 25 year stint. If we’re talking radio, the late Humphrey Lyttelton hosted I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue for 36 years until his death in 2008, while the seemingly immortal Nicholas Parsons has 47 years and counting in the chair for Just a Minute.

The question here though, is, would these hosts ever qualify in the list of the greatest ever? Probably not.

Forsyth or Monkhouse?

UKGameShows, the oracle of all things game show, held two polls to answer this very question in 2002 and 2006. Forsyth came top in both, with Monkhouse 2nd and 3rd respectively. A Guardian article from 2008 noted Forsyth “is so clearly king of the hill that he might as well just have three places in any list of 10 all to himself”, yet inexplicably left out Monkhouse.

Forsyth and Monkhouse hosted dozens of game shows between them over their careers. While both have admitted regret at being pigeonholed into this genre, it was a solid source of work, it kept them both firmly in the public eye – and it helped that both were phenomenally good at their jobs. Forsyth was the cajoler of the contestant and the catchphrase, Monkhouse was the master of the mirth and the moniker.

As Game Show Gallery has explained in the past, catchphrases aren’t just cheesy gimmicks – they’re an easy to decipher, catchy way of explaining the rules, or exposition in a show. The majority of Brucie’s catchphrases are unconnected to that, true, but take two examples from Play Your Cards Right:

“Now I’m the leader of the pack, which makes me such a lucky Jack, and here they are they’re so appealing, come on dollies do your dealing!”
“You get nothing for a pair… [audience] not in this game!”

This effect was beautifully parodied when Forsyth guest hosted Have I Got News For You in 2003, with the infamous Play Your Iraqi Cards Right. When Bruce proffered ‘you get nothing for a pair’, the audience knew exactly what to say, to Paul Merton’s delight/astonishment (delete as appropriate). Ironically, the last ever episode of Play Your Cards Right was broadcast just a week after the HIGNFY recording.

Monkhouse had catchphrases aplenty, too. “In bingo lingo it’s clickety-clicks, now time to take your pick of the six” is a classic from Bob’s Full House. On Family Fortunes, catchphrases were often just based on repetition as it was said in the show so frequently – “our survey said” and so on. Yet what solidified Forsyth and Monkhouse’s relationships with the public, and the shows they were on, was in their naming. It wasn’t just The Price is Right, Play Your Cards Right, or The Generation Game, but Bruce’s Price is Right, Bruce’s Play Your Cards Right, and so on. For Bob, it was more subtle. Contestants on Celebrity Squares when playing for the car were invited to the Monkhouse Motorshow, while finalists going for the star prize on Wipeout had the Monkhouse Minute. Indeed, one lesser known 90s BBC show, Monkhouse’s Memory Masters, was just going to be called Memory Masters before it was confirmed Bob would be hosting it. The entire product had to be rebranded.

This is another easy-to-miss point: Monkhouse and Forsyth traversed the Beeb and ITV across their career. Bob’s Full House and Wipeout were BBC. Family Fortunes and Celebrity Squares were ITV. Forsyth famously fell out with the BBC for some years, before returning in a blaze of glory with nostalgia quiz Didn’t They Do Well. Indeed, the BBC turned down The Price is Right on the grounds of it being too, well, non-Beeb.

Forsyth would have great little set pieces with the contestants that would actually make it worth watching as opposed to just bits of dreary filler. Anyone remember on the Gen Game how he would get out a little notepad and make a jokey remark about a contestant having read a fact on his card? Theoretical example: Contestant says he enjoys sailing and kayaking in his spare time. Bruce: “Oh? I’ll have to write that down…might be a little squirt…” It just added a simple, friendly gag. There was a golden moment in an early Generation Game episode where the challenge was making pottery. For one contestant, whose pot did not look the best, the expert said it was “a bit puckered.” “Well and truly puckered,” Forsyth replied.

In the monk house, however, the gag was truly king. On Bob’s Full House, Monkhouse would just write the word ‘joke’ and come up with something. Bob’s Your Uncle featured a five minute topical stand up set at the top of each show. And as we previously explored, the joke to minute ratio on Celebrity Squares was pretty high.

Combine this longevity, the humour and ease with contestants, and the branding, and you have a fairly solid case for both of them. Yet there are others in the frame.

Once – or twice – in a million

The obvious choice as a pretender to the crown of Forsyth and Monkhouse is Chris Tarrant. There is a huge irony in the fact that, five years after presenting a little-known late night show called ‘Lose a Million’, he would be king of the pile and guiding contestants on their hopeful journey to win a genuine million pounds.

Yet it was a deserved rise to the top. Anything Tarrant threw himself into, with his infectious, madcap energy, warranted little else. Naturally, things had to dovetail a bit. The creators of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire format had a hand in Tarrant’s regular quiz slot when he was presenting on Capital Radio. As this publication has previously explored, Tarrant’s gigs pre-Millionaire ranged from the interesting to the decidedly iffy. Everybody’s Equal had a decent format – in the most part – and worked well with Tarrant’s persona to create a lively, knockabout quiz. Cluedo, on the other hand, had flaws but worked reasonably as a more serious show, yet Tarrant hated it. Man O Man, well let’s not go there.

But as Millionaire host, Tarrant blended the two perfectly. On what was, let’s face it, a very serious amount of money at stake; he was authoritative, but also unafraid to lighten proceedings. Entire swathes of the country would shout at their screen when, hovering over the answer to a six (or seven) figure question, he would cut to a commercial break. Television rarely got more gripping. Including pilots and guest hosting stints, Tarrant has hosted 16 game shows according to our calculations, behind Bob Monkhouse on 17. But there is someone else who has hosted more.

Davina McCall may not be the first name on everyone’s lips when asked on the most prolific UK game show host of them all. Yet with more than 20 entries, according to UKGameshows, she sits at the top – and of course, McCall and Tarrant are both linked by having a hit involving a £1 million prize. This is not to say that quantity trumps quality, but if you include Big Brother as a bona fide top 10 all time classic, The Million Pound Drop as a solid hit, and Don’t Try This At Home and Popstars: The Rivals just behind, then it’s a pretty impressive body of work whichever way you look at it.

The final reckoning

One element, however, may sway the latter names to a runner-up spot when compared to Forsyth and Monkhouse. It’s arguably an unfair metric as you will see, but it counts for a lot: the history post-Bruce and Bob. What do we mean by this? Take The Golden Shot. In a live studio setting where weaponry was happily being used, for goodness sakes, Monkhouse made the proceedings run effortlessly. After being controversially dismissed for supposed product placement, Monkhouse’s replacements, first Norman Vaughan and then Charlie Williams, did not make it look quite as effortless. Ditto Max Bygraves on Family Fortunes.

The final episode of Monkhouse’s initial run on Golden Shot, as referenced in this excellent BBC Four documentary, is an incredible piece of television. Not only did Monkhouse, entirely out of character, make increasingly macabre references to his sacking, and the fate of his successor, but as the closing credits were about to roll, Vaughan strode on, took a glass of champagne, and cheerfully told viewers to tune in the following week. Monkhouse was history even before his final broadcast had ended. Yet after two years, the status quo was restored.

It was a similar pattern with Forsyth, yet when Larry Grayson took over the reins of The Generation Game in 1978, it had the effect of further galvanising the show. This effect can be explained by a passage in Louis Barfe’s excellent ‘Turned Out Nice Again’: when Grayson took over, the producers had the brainwave of pairing him up with Isla St. Clair, who could keep things on an even keel if there was mayhem all around.

Compare with Big Brother, which soldiers on grimly, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. But Millionaire may perhaps have the greatest hosting legacy of all; if the host quits, the show quits with it.

Who do you think is the best of the best? Send us a comment with your view.

Remembering…Defectors

Game shows, in nostalgia terms, fall into four categories:

– The widely remembered because they were great
– The widely remembered because they were a bit rubbish
– The unjustly long forgotten because they were great
– The justly long forgotten because they were a bit rubbish

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Examples above. Zillions of shows fall into the top category, and just as many fall into the bottom category, but it’s best to leave it there to save dredging up the recesses of our minds to remember them. But the third bucket, ‘unjustly long forgotten’, is a different thing altogether.

These are the shows which either had great formats, great presentation, great hosting, or a mix of all three, but fell at an unfortunate hurdle never to be seen again. Take Duel, a fascinating format on ITV, well hosted by Nick Hancock, but only lasting for 12 episodes in 2008. Or Liar, an excellent idea, again well hosted by Paul Kaye, but lasting just eight episodes in 2002.

Another show which falls into this category is Defectors, which ran on Challenge between 2001 and 2002. What made it a cut above the rest, and could it be brought back today?

A glint of potential?

It’s worth noting immediately that Challenge’s original content has rarely been a field of gold. Back in the 90s we had reasonable remakes of classic shows, such as Winner Takes All and Sale of the Century, reasonable original formats, such as Say the Word and Roll With It, and then the likes of Karaoke Challenge…you get the idea.

Thus, when something of promise arrives, one feels duty bound to give it a fair crack of the whip. When Defectors arrived, eyebrows were raised and eyes were taken off pints in the community because it was a very interesting format. Four contestants lined up to answer general knowledge questions, but with a twist: the points they scored were dependent on the audience members who backed them to get the answers right. The winning contestant got £1000 at the end of the show, as did the audience member who most consistently backed a winner. Interestingly, there are shades of Liar in this.

An example can be found in this video here.

The first round, First Impressions, left the audience being asked to pick a contestant based simply on how they introduced themselves – name and location – at the start of the show. In this instance, the percentages were split 19%, 22%, 38% and 21%.

After two questions, the scores were 19, 22, 76 and 0 – contestants one and two getting one question right, contestant three getting both questions right and contestant four getting no questions right. With the audience asked to defect again, the new percentages were 13%, 17%, 62% and 8%.

This throws up a bit of an issue, which we’ll look at shortly – but you get the idea on the basic mechanism of the show.

The little device of lying through your back teeth has become commonplace – Golden Balls, PokerFace, The Great Pretender. It also affirmed that, in general, simple question/answer shows were running out of steam – virtues such as greed and deception were increasingly key

A visionary format?

After each round, the lowest scoring contestant gets kicked off. But with round two, Trust Me, the show starts to come into its own.

Before each round of questions, each contestant is given 10 seconds to make a short appeal as to why they were an expert in this particular topic. The topics are nicely varied, so it’s difficult to imagine a player who, in this example, was a specialist in children’s books, ports, cartoon characters, children of the famous, and sporting nationalities.

Cue, most probably, unending bullshit from the contestants to curry favour and votes. But this little device of lying through your back teeth has become the cornerstone of many game shows since; Golden Balls, PokerFace, The Great Pretender and so on. It also links in with one of this publication’s key themes – the idea that simple question/answer shows are dead, and that virtues such as greed and deception are increasingly key to victory.

Round three, Quick Defect, has just two contestants remaining, and by this point the audience is asked to make a decision after every question based on the subject area. In a nice touch, the host, Richard Orford, reveals how many points have been scored for the first few questions of Quick Defect, but keeps his powder dry towards the end. After a few minutes of this, it’s game over and money time for the winning contestant and audience member.

A presentation blip?

The format, as we’ve mentioned, was excellent if for one nagging issue which will be explained shortly. The presentation, however, was less so – although it certainly had its moments.

Let’s be fair – it would certainly be harsh to compare the budget of a Challenge game show with that of ITV or the BBC. So we’re not going to do that. But there were a few bizarre presentation choices. There was a big screen which seemed to do nothing apart from show the Defectors logo. Perhaps it showed the questions – that would make sense – but it was never referred to.

The incidental music played with each question also begins to grate after a while; perhaps changing key or slightly changing the pitch in the final round would have helped add to the tension while keeping things fresh. But some of the presentation, for an evidently budget production, was excellent; the dissolving effect as each question was answered, as the UKGameshows review notes, is a lovely touch.

If a contestant got a good start in the final, then is the audience more likely to back the winning horse? The general pattern of shows proved that they would, unless the question was on a subject completely anathema to that contestant

Diminishing returns

The one blip with the format, however, is actually pretty central to the whole concept of the game. Any game show should have several key tenets. There has to be jeopardy; some games you win, and some games you lose. The exception that proves the rule is Takeshi’s Castle, where a contestant who won was so rare as to be almost newsworthy.

Equally crucially, the format also has to manufacture a situation where the play is tight until reasonably close to the end. This has been examined by Game Show Gallery on several occasions; the ‘over before it’s over’ problem is a major hindrance, as viewers will invariably switch off if it’s blindingly obvious who is going to win long before the end of the game. Equally, you cannot engineer a close result in your format which seems unfair, or makes the previous 25/40 minutes an irrelevance. This is why double money, much derided by this publication, is so often used. How many times have you seen contestants on Family Fortunes miles behind at the break after the first three games, only to come roaring back in the second winning perhaps two? Double money, folks: it’s not 100% fair, but it’s good enough when you factor in the jeopardy question.

This is the key problem with Defectors, particularly in the final round, which is on the buzzer and against the clock. At this point, with only two contestants left in the game, the situation becomes too closely aligned. If a contestant gets a good start, then is the audience more likely to back the winning horse? The general pattern of shows proved that they would, unless the question was on a subject completely anathema to that contestant. As a result, many – but not all – final rounds saw one contestant pulling away considerably.

If the show were coming back today, what could be done to improve this? There are a couple of ideas:

Take the audience element out. Well, partially. Have the audience contest to pick the best player end after round three. The audience will still vote for how many points a player can receive per question, but it won’t affect their personal standing. Will this lead to closer contests? Then again, this could lead to audience apathy – or the audience maybe voting strategically to engineer a closer contest. Would this be fair?
Remove the ‘on the buzzer’ aspect. Have the points tally as previously – if both contestants get the answer right, they get the points. Will this lead to closer contests? Perhaps the audience vote would be quicker to sway to the lower ranked player if the scoreline was, say, 35-90, as opposed to 0-135.
Have fewer categories of question for the final round. If the categories of questions are esoteric, then will the audience be more likely to back the player who’s winning borne out of pure simple ‘dunno’? If you’re going to have a stock list of sport, films, literature etc, make sure it’s consistent though.

Either way, Defectors was a show that was very much ahead of its time – and if repeats in the early hours are anything to go by, it’s heartening to see that Challenge hasn’t abandoned it altogether.

IBM’s Watson: From Jeopardy! champion to business linchpin

watson_ibm_-_youtube.png.800x600_q96

“This supercomputer, developed by IBM, beat Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in 2011.”
“What is Watson?”

Back in 2011, two episodes of long-running US game show Jeopardy! (always with the exclamation mark) were broadcast featuring former champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, and Watson, a supercomputer developed by tech giant IBM. It was a fascinating and hugely publicised event, similar to when Deep Blue – another piece of IBM kit – faced off, and beat, reigning world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996.

The result: Watson ended up with $35,734, Rutter with $10,400, and Jennings – who clocked up 74 consecutive wins during his tenure as a contestant – on $4,800. It was an impressive feat, but still not especially surprising.

Since those days, Watson’s computing power has been implemented in various degrees, from diagnosing diseases to, more recently, helping businesses make better decisions through its data analysis.

In September last year, your correspondent had the chance to speak with Gene Villeneuve, European predictive and business intelligence sales for IBM Business Analytics, Doug Bonano, worldwide sales leader for IBM Business Intelligence, and Oliver Oursin, global predictive and business intelligence solutions for IBM Business Analytics on what Watson does, how it does it, and the launch of Watson Analytics, a tool which uses data science to help business needs.

The piece, ‘IBM’s Watson Analytics: How it makes sales and marketing’s job easier’, was the result. Exclusive and unpublished snippets of that interview will appear later on in this post – but for now, let’s examine what happened when Watson went on one of America’s primetime game shows and went away with a pot of gold.

From lab to game show studio

The story of Watson on Jeopardy! goes back as far as 2008. When IBM initially contacted the show’s producers with the premise, Jeopardy! bods agreed – yet there was still plenty to iron out before the cameras were turned on, with the idea almost being dropped altogether on occasion.

Unlike other question/answer game shows, Jeopardy! appeared an ideal choice to showcase Watson’s ability to outsmart the best the human race could offer; questions were naturally not set in the usual format, but Watson used cues, predictive analytics and probability to extract the answer, in the main, quicker than Jennings and Rutter.

It wasn’t always the case; for instance, the question on US Cities, “Its largest airport was named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle” had the answer of “What is Toronto?????” from the IBM supercomputer, to the tech firm’s slight embarrassment. Similarly, Watson repeated Jennings’ answer in one instance, of course not knowing it had already been given.

Yet the sophistication was extremely impressive, particularly in the Final Jeopardy! section, which allows contestants to wager as much, or as little, as they wish for the do or die closing question. This concept has already been mentioned to an extent when this blog considered the zugzwang play – where you are compelled to make a move which damns you – but, of course, contestants who legitimately have no idea of a question can bet next to nothing.

An example of how IBM developed Watson to make such mature bets was given by researcher Dr Gerald Tesauro. Watson could utilise advanced mathematical models, unlike the “crude estimates” mere mortals can offer, to answer the two questions needed for Final Jeopardy!:

1) How likely am I to answer the Daily Double clue correctly?
2) How much will a given bet increase or decrease my winning chances when I get the Daily Double right or wrong?

This included a complex algorithm called a Game State Evaluator, which estimated Watson’s winning chances at any stage of the game by assessing the scores of each player, the number of questions left, how much each question was worth and so on, and had millions of simulated Jeopardy! contests in its memory bank.

Yet not everything was rosy in the garden. IBM held frequent concerns over whether the Jeopardy! producers were going to set questions that just served to expose Watson’s deficiencies. A compromise was reached whereby previously written questions, for shows that never aired, was used. The main issue for IBM was that the shows were simply going to be a Turing Test – in other words, where participant A has to assess which of participants B and C are human or machine. To that extent, as previously mentioned, Jeopardy! was an interesting format for this game.

Imagine, for instance, if they used Fifteen to One as an example for Watson. The questions asked by William G. Stewart were also somewhat unique in their delivery, to the extent they were more commands than questions; “The Sound and the Fury; As I Lay Dying; Absalom Absalom. The American author, please.” Now, Watson would have no problem with this – but what about a question such as “Hamlet; King Lear; Romeo and Juliet – what was the name of the author’s wife?” Using questions that would require more human intuition would be unfair on Watson.

It didn’t end there. The Jeopardy! producers wanted Watson to use a mechanical buzzer and press it physically when answering, something that became an issue when it was clear human reflexes simply wouldn’t stand up against the computer.

But everything was resolved, the shows were recorded, and despite a few hiccups, Watson powered to a comfortable victory.

Watson Analytics interview

Here, below, are some unpublished extracts from this correspondent’s interview with IBM in 2014 on Watson Analytics. The key to how Watson Analytics works, in a nutshell, is that it uses simple language that anyone in a business, be it the CEO, a sales or marketing director, can understand. If you ask a question of Watson analysing sales trends, it won’t come back with a bunch of unintelligible numbers or code.

This natural language capability – utilised perfectly in the Jeopardy! broadcasts – can potentially be invaluable to business, as Villeneuve explains.

Gene Villeneuve: “Our intent with Watson Analytics from the very beginning was to break down the barriers between IT and line of business, where the line of business is frustrated that they need to go to the data scientist or somebody in IT to load data, create reports, do analysis and then wait three months, three weeks, two weeks, to get that analysis. And users want to be able to take the data that they own, upload it, work with it, [and] get to insight very quickly.

“I will ask a question – ‘show me revenue by time period’ – [and Watson] will automatically build a report for me or visualisation for me showing me my products broken across time period, but because it understands the nature of the question you’re asking. It’s also going to show you other elements in your data that are highly correlated to your revenue.

“That’s the intent: not only is it really easy to get started, but once you’re in there and having this very immersive dialogue with the data, Watson Analytics will guide you to see other things you wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise with other capabilities on the market today.”

Oliver Oursin: “When you ask the question, the real language question to us, what we’re doing is we’re trying to go after key concepts in that question. We’re trying to understand if you want to see trend or compare, if you want to see discreet data or numeric data. If I say ‘can you compare the quarters and revenue?’ you get a bar chart. If I say ‘can you give me the trend of the revenue over the quarters?’ then I would have to bring a line chart. And that’s a very simple example, how the analytics of the question drives the results.

“The first thing is, it’s very easy to touch. If you think you’re using Watson Analytics, you have no pre-knowledge that’s required, you just need to understand your business, and you have to have your data. That’s the only thing you need to bring to the table – it makes it very easy.

Gene Villeneuve: “For us, what we’re doing with Watson Analytics is very pertinent to a market problem out there. I would not say that Watson Analytics is a technology looking for a problem – it’s actually quite the inverse.

“We’ve worked with lots and lots of customers on this capability, and every customer that we’ve worked with has given us feedback that the primary problems they have is 1) how do I reduce the barriers to very quickly get data up and in a useable format, and 2) business intelligence (BI) tools – it’s hard for the average person to be able to really fully grasp the benefit and power of the average BI product because the products don’t necessarily guide them.

“The other point is that many of the tools today on the market start you off with a blank screen. The average business person has normal, everyday questions. Show me sales, show me top 10, show me bottom 10, show me contribution, show me growth. We’ve built it so it has the ability to have that natural language dialogue.”

You can find a video of some of the Watson Jeopardy! broadcasts here:

A note on the ‘zugzwang’ play in game shows: When does jeopardy become cruelty?

chess-move

As any television executive, or anyone who’s ever pitched a game show idea for commission, will tell you, game shows need jeopardy: the underlying tension that means one wrong move could be catastrophic.

This publication has examined the fine line producers have to traverse to ensure both the show’s contestants and its audience gets a fair deal. You need to, if possible, create jeopardy without making the result of the game obvious long before the show’s completed – the ‘over before it’s over’ rule – while at the same time making it an even contest throughout, not putting all your eggs in one basket for the final round rendering the previous 20 or so minutes irrelevant.

To find a leading example of this, look no further than Jeopardy! (exclamation mark always included) itself. The game’s title arises because players can lose not unreasonable sums of money if their general knowledge is wayward. In the Final Jeopardy! round, contestants can lose all the money they had previously earned during the show. Yet this is an example of calculated jeopardy; players can bet however much they like dependent on how confident they are. If they so wish, they can bet nothing and take their money away with them. (For those wondering why Jeopardy! is featuring on a mainly UK-based game show blog, there have been four, count ‘em, four iterations of the show in the UK over the years, all performing dismally).

Again, as this publication has examined, if you want to ramp up the tension to insane levels, you need a get out clause. Think of it like a hot air balloon; if you keep raising the pressure until the balloon becomes enormous, eventually it will burst. This was a key principle behind the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?; yes, you could theoretically lose £968,000, but you could also walk away.

Sometimes, however, you can take jeopardy a stage further. Let’s get acquainted with the zugzwang play. The word zugzwang derives from the German for ‘compulsion to move’, and is a terminology used in chess. The opponent is obliged to make a move as per the game’s rules, but any move they make will result in a serious disadvantage to them.

With that in mind, here are a couple of interesting examples which borrow from the concept:

Wipeout

Wipeout, originally from the US, made its way onto UK shores and debuted on May 25 1994. The premise was simple in round one: 16 answers appeared on the grid, 11 correct and 5 wrong. The question would be something along the lines of “Celebrities who have refused honours”, or “Countries with kings”. Get an answer right, and you get money – £10, £20, £30 for each correct answer unveiled and so on. Get one wrong, and you lose all the money you had accumulated up to that point.

An example question on Wipeout. With four wipeouts and two correct answers, it's a 33% chance of success - would you want to risk £700+ on that?

An example question on Wipeout. The category is “collective nouns for animals”.* With four wipeouts and two correct answers, it’s a 33% chance of success – would you want to risk £700+ on that?

Here’s the rub; if you got an answer right, you could either go on, or pass the buck to your opponent. If your opponent happened to be sitting pretty on a lot of money, it made sense to get them to go wrong. But the longer each round goes on, the more the odds get stacked against you. For example, if you have six answers left on the board, four wrong and two right, then you have a 33% chance of answering correctly. With £750+ or more on the line on occasion, is that a risk you want to take? In Wipeout, sometimes you just had to.

Press Your Luck

In a recent post, this publication examined the hit US show Press Your Luck and one contestant in particular, Michael Larson, who made the whole format look like a sham. There was a UK version of Press Your Luck, presented by Paul Coia in 1992, but it’s little known for two reasons: 1) it broadcast only in the ITV West region, and 2) it wasn’t very good, by all accounts. Primarily this was because there was a top prize of £200. When you’ve got scores of $20,000 or so being risked – or one man on the US version risking $100,000 – who cares? Remarkably however, the UK Press Your Luck went on for two series.

The game was straightforward enough; players had to literally ‘press their luck’ against a giant screen with supposedly random permutations. If they landed right, they won money. If they landed on a ‘whammy’, they lost all the money they had earned until that point. Among the nuances of the format related to ‘earned’ spins and ‘passed’ spins. If you had spins left, you could pass them to your opponent. In the Larson episode, he had won $102,851, but still had to play on for at least three more spins after they were shoved onto him by his opponent. Clearly he didn’t want to move – but he had to.

Can zugzwang theory work?

It’s worth noting here that the above two examples aren’t zugzwang in its purest form. In pure zugzwang, any move you make results in a disadvantage. In these instances, there is a right and a wrong answer; but when it practically comes down to guesswork, and the odds are stacked against you in getting it right, then it’s a compulsion to move which the contestant sorely doesn’t want to take.

So can the idea of zugzwang be incorporated into a game show? Here’s a quick idea:

snakes-and-ladders

A hypothetical snakes and ladders game board. Note contestant A is at position 16, contestant B is at position 10, and contestant C is at position 13.

Many board games have been plundered to create game show formats, from the successful (Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble) to the less successful (Boggle, Monopoly). Snakes and Ladders, in the UK market at least, has only been used twice to Game Show Gallery’s knowledge; a Kenneth Horne-hosted version in the 1950s, and a pilot featuring Bradley Walsh, who made light of the audacious set design in an appearance on TV Nightmares here.

But in this particular format, let’s assume there are three contestants, and the object of the game, naturally, is to get to the top of the board before playing for the big end game prize.

To get there, let’s steal half an idea from Strike it Lucky. Instead of simply rolling a dice, contestants are offered a category – e.g. “Beatles singles” – and given the chance to roll 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 by giving that number of answers. If a player gets the answer wrong, the turn is passed to the next contestant who can move one square if they get one answer right. After a number is taken, it disappears from the board, and so the game goes round each of the three contestants twice before resetting. As the rounds progress, the categories get increasingly difficult, sometimes so esoteric there may be only 6 possible answers e.g. “Wives of Henry VIII”. (Obviously on the game board as above, for this format to work you would need the first six squares minimum to not contain a ladder, otherwise the first contestant would simply say ‘3’ and then rocket up to square 22).

Here’s where zugzwang can come in. Using this game board, let’s assume in this instance that player A is on square 16, player B is on square 10 and player C is on square 13. Player A and B have taken 6 and 4 respectively, and player C has 1, 2, 3 and 5 remaining. The category is “South African major golf championship winners.” Player C may know 5 South Africa major golf championship winners*, but by opting for only 2, it puts player A in an unplayable lie. With only 1, 3 and 5 moves left, whichever one player A hits will land them on a snake.

The next move. As you can see, player A's three options all lead to snakes.

The next move. As you can see, player A’s three options all lead to snakes.

Of course there are plenty of things to iron out – player A may just purposely get the answer wrong to avoid a snake – but this is a simple concept of how pure zugzwang – i.e. any move a player makes will damn them – could work.

* The correct answers were a knot (of toads, or snakes – naturally!) and a smack (of jellyfish).

**Infact there are 7 at time of writing; Bobby Locke, Gary Player, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Trevor Immelman, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.