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What makes a good daytime game show?

Carol Vorderman on Countdown and Henry Kelly on Going for Gold

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Countdown is back on television with new presenters to replace the late lamented Richard Whiteley, and cherished number cruncher Carol Vorderman. But what is it that propels some daytime game shows into viewers' hearts?

The phrase "game show" is not one laden with positive connotations.

Along with its cousin "quiz show", it conjures up unpleasant images in the mind of the enemies of dumbing down in modern television.

Rachel Riley and Jeff Stelling
First broadcast in 1982
Presented by Richard Whiteley until death in 2005
Based on French show Des chiffres et des lettres
Prototype Calendar Countdown broadcast on Yorkshire TV
New presenter Jeff Stelling known for Sky Sport's Soccer Saturday
New numbers guru is 22-year-old Oxford graduate Rachel Riley
Successful contestants often also used to appear on Five's BrainTeaser

They think of overlit studios where gurning former local radio DJs scatter corny quips as sweating contestants struggle to name the capital of Italy or tackle three-letter anagrams.

But the recent controversy over Countdown's choice of new presenters shows the intense feelings that some tea-time game shows can generate.

For those who have never heard the immortal words "consonant please Carol", Countdown works thus:

• Two contestants go head to head making the longest words they can from a selection of letters.

• They must make a number from a selection of other numbers using addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.

• They must solve a conundrum, a nine-letter anagram.

Broadcast since the birth of Channel 4 in 1982, the show is based on a French format from the 1960s, Des Chiffres et Des Lettres.

A game show's success is all about pitching it at the right intelligence level, says William G Stewart, producer and presenter of Fifteen to One for 15 years until 2003, and twice a guest presenter on Countdown.

1. Who won both a Nobel prize and an Oscar?
2. From the world of sport, what distinction did Eddie Eagan earn?
3. On a related theme, what was Philip Neame's unique achievement?
Answers at the bottom

"They must be at a level of intelligence that the viewers will appreciate. The longest running and most appreciated quiz shows have always been intelligent ones like Mastermind and University Challenge. Countdown [despite not technically being a quiz show] comes into that category."

In a daytime or teatime show, this aspect is particularly important. The picking up of viewers from the previous show, the "inheritance", may be less of a factor than on a primetime Saturday night show.

The game show needs to be a distinctive offering for intellectually under-occupied segments of the audience like retirees and students. And they want to feel almost as if they are taking part, says Countdown "octochamp" and Fifteen to One series winner Jack Welsby.

"The main thing is that people can play along at home. You have the same constraints as the contestants."

Graduate reminiscences

For Countdown, these constraints are provided by the famous illuminated clock and the music counting the 30 seconds down. "De-ne-de-ne-de-ne-nah-naaaah."

Mr Stewart is astounded by the regularity with which he hears graduates reminisce about watching Fifteen to One when they should have been studying.

William G Stewart
I was described as a geography master standing in front of pupils - Terry Wogan used to call me the gauleiter
William G Stewart

"I've been into an accountant's office and some 24-25 year-old says 'I used to watch it every day at university'. As far as I know at university they do nothing but watch Fifteen to One and Countdown."

Expanding into game shows after being an established producer of television comedy and drama, Mr Stewart has an insight into why certain formats work and others fail.

Shows are often picked up from other countries, as was the case when he brought The Price is Right and Family Fortunes (originally Family Feud) back from the US. But any format must be tinkered with to make it gel with the target audience and fit logistical constraints.

"You have to recognise a good format. I had dozens sent to me. The only one that was appealing was Twenty to One, sent to me by a British Telecom salesman. It was the best investment I ever made, two hundred pounds for a one-year option."

Fifteen to One
Fifteen to One winners received kudos and historic artefacts rather than cash

Of course, when the decision was made to make the show for Channel 4 instead of the BBC it had to drop down to Fifteen to One to fit into a show with adverts.

In the successful format 15 contestants have to answer two out of three questions to qualify for a second round. They then nominate each other in the second round, losing lives for wrong answers until only three remain. In the final round, they must "question or nominate", balancing the need to knock out the two remaining contestants with the need to accumulate a high score to make the finals leaderboard.

The "gladiatorial quality" was part of the format's success says Stewart, with viewers engaged by the idea that quite knowledgeable people could still see themselves knocked out in the first round.

And of course a big part of any show's success is the ambiance the hosts generate, such as the badinage of Countdown.

Shows do not always have to be cerebral to have cult appeal

"Over the years Countdown has developed a very distinctive feel," says Mr Welsby. "It is a cosy tea-time show. When they think of Countdown they think of Richard Whiteley's delivery and Carol Vorderman's laugh."

The viewer has to have some affinity with the host, concurs Mr Stewart. "They always thought I was like a severe teacher. I was described as a geography master standing in front of pupils. Terry Wogan used to call me the gauleiter [a Nazi party official].

"When I used to be out shopping in the high street in Richmond or Kingston I would hear a voice behind me say 'question or nominate'."

These stock phrases help brand game shows. Many might have forgotten the Euro-tinged quiz Going for Gold from its original incarnation in the late 80s and early 90s, but give them: "I'm a type of antelope, I live in the Serengeti in Africa, I migrate in May. What am I?" and you may get a spark of recognition.

Catchphrase, the ITV game show that ran for 16 years from 1986 to 2002, was innovative in its use of computer graphics to represent maxims and sayings, but it probably sticks in the public consciousness as much for Roy Walker's handling of some of the inept efforts at answers. "It's good, but it's not right" and "say what you see" will live forever in the game show pantheon.

And of course at the root of the successful shows is the quality of the puzzles and questions.

1. George Bernard Shaw won the Nobel prize for literature in 1925 and an Oscar for his work on the Pygmalion screenplay in 1938
2. Eagan is the only person to have won a gold medal at both the summer and winter Olympics
3. Neame is the only person to have won a Victoria Cross and an Olympic gold

"Over the 15 years, I asked about half a dozen questions that were simply incorrect," says Mr Stewart. "Every time I did that, the letter and phone calls came in like a torrent."

Linked questions and recurring themes allow contestants like Mr Welsby to steer their educated guessing and also prepare for appearances. He remembers "Charles Dickens and the order of succession" being fertile territory on Fifteen to One.

And if all else fails, the important thing is always to have a go. Mr Welsby recalls being asked a question involving American jockeys. He only knew one. "Steve Cauthen" proved to be the correct answer.

"I managed to keep a straight face," says Mr Welsby.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The French had Des Chiffres & Des Lettres, we had Des Lynam & Des O'Connor. Has to be more than coincidence.
MLC, Ely, UK

I was a contestant on Fifteen to One in 2000 and made it into the final three on my show. I'm sitting here grinning from ear to ear at the mention of all of these quiz shows in one article, as I was also one of those university students who watched them all instead of studying.
Paula Thomas Spowart, Cambridge, England

Just to correct Nick. Al Gore didn't win an academy award for An Inconvenient Truth. The film won a documentary award at the Oscars but Gore himself was not credited with the award. William G Stewart is never wrong.
Simon, York

Al Gore has won an Oscar for "An Inconvienent Truth" and the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming and environmental issues.
Nick, UK

Fifteen to One was THE definitive quiz show. I used to come back from school and watch it. I remember being quite upset one day to find that the series was ending and Countdown was taking it's slot - and so they alternated for the year: one quarter on, one off. Bring it back, Channel 4.
Jordan D, London, UK

I totally agree that viewer interaction is a key-element to the success of a game show. It's great to sit around with your family, trying to shout out the answer before anyone else (including the contestant on the show). Countdown is the king of this, as everyone gets the same amount of time and apart from the conundrum at the end, there's no buzzing in.
TS, Bromley, England

It's a shame there's no mention of the greatest game shows (mainly for its wonderful ridiculousness): Bullseye. Who else gave away speedboats as prizes? With Jim "super, smashing, great" Bowen and "Take your time and listen to Tony" Green. Sunday tea-time viewing at its best. "Stay out of the black and into the red, nothing in this game for two in a bed." Classic stuff.
DS, Croydon, England

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