Weaver's Week 2019-09-22

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The Weeks of the 2010s: Cookery | Reality | Quiz | Talent | Crafts and Childrens | Entertainments

Our review of the decade continues with part two:


Reality game shows

Constructed reality

If the aughts was the decade of Big Brother, then the tens should have been the decade of Post Big Brother. Channel 4 aired its eleventh and final series in summer of 2010, a winner was found, and we could all draw a line under a memorable series.

Big Brother That is that. The end. Goodbye.

Next door, Channel 5 was under new ownership. It had been bought by Richard Desmond, a smut-to-populism vendor who cared little for art, and a lot for getting eyeballs in front of his shows – and for his large stable of magazines. One of the first things Channel 5's new owner did was to buy Big Brother; the channel would end up making eight series.

When it first began, Channel 5's acquisition turned some healthy numbers. The contest was genuinely interesting, who can forget Jedward and Tara Reid's unlikely and lasting friendship. Big Brother's Bit on the Side was the nightly spin-off show, a late-night chance to be rude and unedited and frank. But viewers were unhappy that they weren't allowed a live feed, and had to live off the scraps and the storylines fed by the producers. The civilian series ended with the viewers voting for a winner, and the crowd outside the house booing that winner.

Big Brother Cheers to the revived series.

In retrospect, the 2012 series was a foretaste of so much that's to come. We had misogyny, we had a threatened sexual assault, all of which was handwaved away because the perpetrator was useful to the producers. The producers asked viewers to disbelieve the evidence of our own eyes, a process since known as gaslighting. Complex problems were reduced to soundbites, difficult topics ignored for a brief flash of controversy.

Later years followed a similar, depressing, tedious trajectory. Any interesting people would be out in the first few weeks, the "series-long" theme was abandoned by the second elimination, and the remainder of the series was dull and manipulated. The suspicious "friends and family" nominations were as common as the traditional "everyone names two, top three plus ties are up". Whether the producers actually rigged the tasks is almost immaterial: viewers could reasonably conclude that the show wasn't above board, that it was slanted in particular ways. And once those conspiracy theories take root, they will never leave.

Love Island Warm days and starlit nights in the villa.

Enter, in 2015, Love Island on ITV2. The celebrities-on-a-remote-island idea had been tried in the aughts, and had failed in the aughts. Under the witty narration of The Fabulous Iain Stirling, Love Island caught fire. Every night, the Scot would talk through the constructed reality, gently poking fun at the contestants while revelling in their romances. While the Big Brother producers chose to set their series up around conflict, the Love Island producers set their stall around – well, love. It's proven a ratings winner, and completely dominated telly right through this summer.

Love Island has a very desirable audience. Young, with disposable cash, the people who advertisers cannot reach through other means. Big Brother also had an audience. It was the same people who grew up on it in the early aughts, who remember Brian and Kate and the chickens. By 2017, this audience was pushing 40, no longer as desirable to advertisers, and dwindling in number. Channel 5 – now owned by Viacom – saw out the contract and finished Big Brother in 2018.

Ultimately, Big Brother failed because it is easy to make dispiriting television. It is easy to make joyless, ill-tempered, grim, soul-destroying television. While it was the only reality show in the summer, it commanded just enough of an audience to pay its way. As soon as something better arrived, Big Brother was toast.

Big Brother The four unwise monkeys.

When we discuss "gaslighting" and "abusing women" and "defending violent men" and "depressing", we cannot be far from The Apprentice. The show has continued all decade, forever stained by association with its founder. The television programme franchised over here remains "a caricature of capitalism" – not this column's words, but those of a former minister in the trade department.

Love Island isn't the only programme about dating, of course. Channel 5 revived Blind Date after 15 years: it was tame, it was safe, it pulled in a decent enough audience. ITV pushed the envelope with Meet the Parents, where older relatives picked a potential date for their child – and popped in halfway through to see how the date was going. The whole scene was sent up by BBC3's comedy show World Series of Dating, where conversation and chat was treated with all the tropes of television sport.

Big Brother Paul O'Grady on Blind Date.

Channel 4 was the home of Big Brother, and then it wasn't. Correctly, the channel steered away from reality shows for most of the decade, only landing a hit with The Circle, an interesting concept that will have a second series in the next few weeks. Studio Lambert had already made their mark with Love Thy Neighbour (2011), which was the show they wanted to make, however little the facts reflected it. Jewish Mum of the Year (Shine, 2012) could have provided an excursion into a rarely-seen community, but came across as a caricature in the style of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and the subsequent Benefits Street.

Observational reality

Some shows had a less enclosed presence, not confining themselves to a studio. One such example is Hotel GB, a feelgood piece of work from Channel 4. Unemployed young people are selected to learn how to work jobs in a hotel, while various Channel 4 celebrities drop in to help or hinder. It only ran for one week, but did more for public service than ten years of The Apprentice. Hotel GB sprung to this column's mind again recently, when we considered a grown-up version of CBBC's Step Up to the Plate.

5 Star, a spin-off channel from Channel 5, has no budget and almost no clue what its mission is. In addition to overspill Big Brother coverage, they have made a couple of reality shows of their own. The Love Bus (2011) sent a couple on a guided tour of a city, with the option to ditch a date if it wasn't working and replace it with the guy at the next bus stop. Cheap and cheerful, and we could have seen more than the one series. Celebs on the Farm (from 2018) did exactly what it said on the tin, asking celebrities to work on a farm (or a ranch). We're never quite sure if this is played seriously or for laughs, and any show stalling between those options is in trouble.

Drop Zone A flyaway failure.

The BBC had many attempts at making an observational travel show. In 2009, they made Drop Zone, where groups of three were dropped in an unknown location, and asked to navigate through tasks to a final pick-up. The last team would be eliminated from the game, and abandoned up a hillside in Austria. Intended as a primetime show, the series crept out on Sunday afternoons in the depths of winter at the end of 2010. Too much walking, too much emphasis on the unimportant part of the race, and not enough fun. Still, it gave Steve Jones an introduction to Sunday afternoons before his stint on Formule First, and we got to know the finalists' personalities really well.

In 2015, they commissioned Prized Apart, an adventure holiday with Reggie Yates in Morocco and Emma Willis in, er, an aircraft hangar near Farnborough. The best performers at challenges in Morocco were safe, the worst were flown home and faced a general knowledge quiz. And the worst at the quiz stayed at home while the others were flown back to Morocco to continue the game. The show was shot and presented in the most dull way imaginable, it aspired to be as interesting as a corporate away day. At one point the show decided its winner by counting the number of oranges. And it was environmentally unsound: eight flights to and from Morocco for your entertainment? There was some merit in the hosts, and the original idea was sound – two people develop new skills and practice for a one-shot attempt to win a big prize – but this series fell flat.

Prized Apart Oranges and Prized Apart and Reggie Yates.

Undeterred, the Beeb then made The Getaway Car with Dermot O'Leary in South Africa. "It'll show people's relationships in a way never seen before," screamed the press releases. Over four rounds of fast driving, we'll find out how well two people know each other, and can communicate. Except that the show degenerated into lots of people shouting at each other, and tried to turn "The Stig" into an evil baddie. The Stig is a body who drives a car – doesn't talk, never see their eyes, just blank spaces without any personality. We ended up thinking "this is 90s docusoap Driving School without Maureen." Viewers agreed, and the BBC's hoped-for international sales never materialised.

This year, BBC2 showed Race Across the World. Travel overland from London to Singapore, under the pressure of time and of money. The teams were herded through checkpoints, but had free rein in between. Footage of people travelling was rare, we saw more process, people planning to get from A to C via B, negotiating for tickets, wondering if they ought to take a hotel room or sleep on the coach. A lot of people loved this show; we didn't get the emotional connection, and are still hacked off at the producers' final stunt. But Race Across the World was by far the best BBC travel game this decade, and thoroughly earned its recommission.

Race Across the World There's never enough time!

Other shows tested relationships. Wild Things (The Satellite Channel, 2015-18) put grown people in costume as woodland creatures, and gave them silly things to do. Children could watch it for the sheer comedy, their parents could watch it as grown-ups shouting at each other. Dianc (S4C, 2018) put two strangers in a difficult situation: work together to find a cash prize, then the winner might – or might not – share it. What Would Your Kid Do? and Big Star's Little Star (both ITV) address different strands of family relationships in a cosy and honest way.

We do have one last observational show, Fferm Ffactor (S4C, since 2009). Originally a serious contest amongst farmers, to win a brand new jeep, the show has become a comedy programme for celebrity teams. It's shown the best of farming, it's shown how rugby players are incapable of herding pigs into a trailer.

Wild Things Little pigs, little pigs, let us in!

Missing in action: anything like Sorry voor Alles (Dutch-language television), a show of the kind they don't make over here. Over the past month, people close to one contestant have taken part in filmed stunts, and our hero (target? victim? contestant?) predicts their behaviour, or the other way round. It's all done in excellent heart, it's all done with great style and panache, and we can imagine Noel Edmonds or Jeremy Beadle of 1990 itching to get their hands on the format. But we don't have people with that combination of vision and budget any more, and Sorry voor Alles remains on the internet, tantalisingly out of reach.

Reality television is cheap to make, that's why there's so much of it. Sadly, much of the reality television we see is unimaginative and dull. In part, this is because the best new ideas are squelched by committee, or cost too much. We hope for some shining new ideas in the 20s.

The Weeks of the 2010s: Cookery | Reality | Quiz | Talent | Crafts and Childrens | Entertainments

This Week and Next

A Song Against Europe The BBC has confirmed it will take part in next year's Senior Eurovision Song Contest. The corporation will work with BMG music company to find a song and performer. While the press release gave many famous and well-known names, we can be sure that the choice will be between Act Unknown, Someone From X Factor, and Washedup Old Fave. The selection will be made by the BBC, the national final has been abolished.

We also note that the press release talks a lot about the selection, and doesn't mention a massive international promotional campaign to expose every lughole in Europe to the BBC's song. A winning strategy includes getting the word out: have the shock of a first listen in April, make the tune an old friend by May.

Alex Trebek gets good wishes, as he takes further treatment against that obnoxious cancer in his body.

BARB ratings in the week to 8 September.

  1. Bake Off remains the most popular show on telly, seen by 9.4m (C4, Tue). Just behind is Strictly Come Dancing The Launch Show (BBC1, Sat, 9.25m). Top non-game was drama series A Confession (ITV, Mon, 7.1m).
  2. Got Talent The Champions continued its strong run in a later slot (ITV, Sat, 6.2m). Celebrity Masterchef opened strongly (BBC1, Mon, 4.75m). Millionaire (ITV, Sun, 3.8m), The Chase (ITV, Tue, 3.6m), Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Sat, 3.15m) all scored well.
  3. On BBC2, Dragons' Den ruled the roost (Sun, 2.8m). University Challenge had a good week (Mon, 2.55m), and bettered Only Connect (Mon, 2.35m). Interior Design Masters continues to rate (Wed, 1.5m), and QI came back (Fri, 1.32m).
  4. Back on Channel 4, Bake Off Extra Slice pulled 1.9m to Channel 4 (Fri), with 1.7m for Catsdown just after.
  5. Leading shows on the new channels: Taskmaster (Dave, Wed, 1.27m), A League of Their Own (The Satellite Channel, Thu, 730,000), and Have I Got a Bit More News for You (Dave, Sun, 310,000). Next biggest new show was Masterchef Down Under (W, Thu, 300,000); next biggest new show from round here was Celebs on the Farm (5star, Mon, 200,000).

On Sunday, it's the annual BBC One Man and His Dog (BBC1, Sun). Mark your weekdays carefully, Pointless moves to 4.30, as Strictly Come Dancing on Two on One occupies its slot for a fortnight (BBC1, 5.15 weekdays). The evenings have new episodes of The Circle (C4, from Tue).

This island's longest-running Eurovision song selection show returns, Chwilio am Seren Junior Eurovision (S4C, Tue) finds an entry for November's contest. If you'd prefer English-language comedy, that's Blockbusters (Comedy Central, Thu) and Don't Hate the Playaz (ITV2, Wed). It's Will Young and Rowetta on Pointless Celebrities (BBC1, Sat), Ruth Davidson and Dan Walker on The Chase (ITV, Sat).

Photo credits: Endemol, ITV Studios, Stellify Media and So Television, BBC, Electric Ray, Studio Lambert, IWC / Group M / Mad Monk.

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