Category Archives: Media

In praise of University Challenge

For fans of University Challenge, like my wife Lynn and I, Christmas is a great time of year, as ten ‘Celebrity’ versions of the BBC quiz go out on consecutive evenings. For the rest of the year, it’s shown on a weekly basis.

While its overall charm is mainly to do with seeing which of the two university teams can triumph in a particular episode, the show’s enduring appeal – it was first aired by Granada Television way back in 1962 – is also a function of the quick-fire pace of the questioning, the fluctuations in the teams’ fortunes and the personal characteristics of the team members. So many aspects of the quiz are entertaining: whether the contest is one-sided or a closely-fought duel doesn’t seem to matter too much to its enjoyment value, though when two teams are neck-and-neck with less than a minute to go it can be especially gripping. But that’s not the entire story …

For starters, there’s often at least one ridiculously well-informed individual on the show who seems to have limitless knowledge about virtually every aspect of the arts and sciences, a comprehensive mental database of the entire geography of the world, to be able to retrieve the most arcane chemical data and to interrupt quizmaster and national treasure Jeremy Paxman (pictured left, sadly leaving the programme at the end of the current series) with instant recognition of some obscure piece of classical music after hearing only the first two notes. But it’s in the closing episodes, approaching the Final – or indeed in the Final itself – that the show really comes into its own, especially when two or more such erudite polymaths pit their wits against each other, head to head across the studio floor.

Over the past year or so, University Challenge has had to adapt to the onset of the pandemic, with transparent screens erected between team members. This doesn’t seem to stop them conferring – when allowed – nor giving each other the occasional ‘high five’ against the plastic partitions!

But besides the unfolding of the televisual contest, there’s also the personal challenge of trying to answer questions before the teams …

My own performance in this regard varies dramatically from week to week: on some occasions I’m on top form, blurting out correct answers like the real wiseacre I know myself to be; then the next show comes along and I begin to wonder if I’m suffering some form of memory loss. It’s fascinating to watch agile minds working as a team, trying to come up with answers when I haven’t the foggiest clue what the question was even about. On the other hand, what a feeling of triumph when (that rarest event) I get the correct answer when all eight contestants are stumped.

I find one other fascinating aspect of the show is guesswork. I’ll sometimes hazard a complete guess in answer to a subject I’ve never studied, and, lo-and-behold, I’m right. This can usually be explained by sheer chance, as when the answer is a numerical value – say, a number from one to ten. But now and again I seem to dredge up some deep-seated factoid that I had no idea was there, lodged in the darkest recesses of my grey matter. It makes me wonder what else is hidden away within the innermost folds of my brain. And, of course, there’s the reverse case, where I’m convinced I’m right only to discover that my synapses have got their neurons in a twist.

There’s one additional facet of University Challenge that makes it really special. It’s so refreshing to see a keenly-fought, knockout contest where the teams aren’t motivated by monetary reward. As far as I’m concerned, that single attribute alone earns it countless bonus points!


University Challenge TV card: fair use

Jeremy Paxman: Daisyheadmaisie, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Why interfere with Channel Four?

Speaking recently at a Select Committee of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Culture Minister Oliver Dowden (pictured below) confirmed that he is considering privatising Channel Four.

This is not news. The channel has been under the Tory party microscope for some considerable time, despite the fact that it is clearly fulfilling its original and established remit to produce “high quality and distinctive programming”. It has managed to do that throughout its existence, since its launch in 1982 into a UK TV landscape comprising only three terrestrial channels – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV.

John Nicolson, SNP member for Ochil and South Perthshire, quizzed Dowden on the reason for the review. “A programme like Unreported World, for instance, would be unlikely to be made by a privatised Channel Four – it just doesn’t get the viewing figures to attract the advertising”.

Although I agree with Nicolson’s sentiment, I assume (though I might be wrong) that his contention was that most advertisers seek high ratings. Actually, in my 41-year media planning and buying career in ad. agencies I found Channel Four to typically offer excellent value on a cost-efficiency basis, rather than simply high audience numbers. It was often invaluable when used in campaigns aimed at upscale audiences, but that didn’t necessarily equate with large total audience. TV buying decisions for upmarket clients are rarely made solely on the basis of gross audiences. Although it can attract a premium for some airtime, Channel Four is often used as a “cost reducer” because of its efficiency in reaching otherwise hard-to-reach demographics. This is purely a function of its often quirky programmimg, whether that be incisive reporting, daring drama, unusual documentary material or commissioned productions aimed at niche markets. It is very useful in adding audience coverage to a media campaign – in other words, reaching audiences that aren’t reached by other channels. But such successes are by-products of its ability to deliver on its core remit – high quality and distinctive programming.

Dowden replied: “I think the scale and pace of the evolution of the broadcasting model continues apace and I think it is important that we … consider the ownership model for Channel Four … The extent to which viewing habits are now dominated by video-on-demand – particularly post-pandemic – Netflix was not really a major player in the UK market five years ago. Now it is a hugely important player, for example in commissioning, etc.”

Market share – in terms of share of audience – has never been C4’s goal. Its licence doesn’t permit it to make its own programmes, but over the years it’s commissioned and broadcast a host of minority and/or controversial programmimg. In this respect it offers a genuine alternative to the other mainstream channels. Its choices of subject matter has often been highly controversial (and anti-Establishment) and it has an editorial stance that has frequently provoked the ire of the incumbent government, of whatever leaning.

Back in the day I was invited to one of its 1982 launch events and had the good fortune to have a brief conversation with its founding Chief Executive Jeremy Isaacs (now Sir Jeremy Isaacs). Seeking ‘inside track’ information for the regular opinion column I wrote for advertising trade rag Campaign, I persuaded him to estimate what kind of audience share he was anticipating, which he expected to settle down at around 12%. In fact C4’s share of audience has bobbed about over the years, eroded slowly by new entrants. The channel’s Top Ten programmes of all time (headed by Woman of Substance in 1985) all achieved audiences over 10 million (source: BARB).

Originally funded by ad. sales handled by the ITV stations, who were permitted to sell ads. on it in their own regions, since 1990 it has been self-supporting and indeed the original single channel has spawned many offshoots, including Film4, E4 and More 4, together with a free video-on-demand service called All 4.

It seems that one of the penalties imposed on the channel for its asking searching questions of government ministers is to be accused of bias and for them to refuse to be interviewed. This seems at one and the same time to be anti-democratic and a great insult to the Channel Four team, including its two star interview/presenters Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy.

Furthermore the main reason given by Dowden for undertaking the review of the Channel’s funding model seems particularly flimsy, particularly when you consider that its audience performance both pre- and during the pandemic has been relatively stable, if not positive.

And, more to the point, its value to the nation is its complete independence from influences that might skew its programming on the basis of profit-making. Channel Four takes risks – long may that continue!



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