I don’t know if you read my review of Friday’s Mastermind. If you did you might have read Gary Grant’s very thought provoking comments about the show, and its future direction. This was such an intriguing response to the review that I thought I would post my reply in a post of its own. Gary’s original comments are in italics. I haven't quoted the whole of the two comments, so please by all means read them for yourselves.
Right, I’d better begin with a sort of disclaimer. Mastermind is exceptionally special to me, for obvious reasons. So it’s fair to say that I can’t view it or write about it dispassionately , and anything which I say about the show has to be viewed in this light.
OK. Gary’s first main point was -
“I just think in an era of 300+ channels and a plethora of game show formats that MM has a big struggle getting a decent audience due to what has always been its Achilles' heel - the SS round.”
It’s interesting to remember here that the late Bill Wright’s original concept of Mastermind was that it would only have specialist rounds, and he had to be persuaded to include the GK round. The show would have had a very different history without GK rounds, and doubtless it would have had a very different history without SS rounds either. With a plethora of channels and formats, the specialist round is one thing which actually does separate the show from others. But yes, I concede the point that the SS round may be one of the reasons why it never attracts an audience comparable to that of, for the sake of argument, University Challenge. On the other hand I would argue that the audience it does get is a very loyal one. People do know pretty much what they are going to get before they tune in to the show. It says something for the show the way that every year it survives the BBC messing it around, taking it on and off at the drop of a hat, and shoving it around the schedules in the regions (I’m talking about YOU, BBC Wales ).
“Back when the show first started I think they had a better format: a contender would take an enormously broad SS topic such as 'Visual Art' or 'World War One' and this has a twofold effect: first, there was a chance that the viewer at home may be able to play along if it was an interest of theirs, and secondly, it tested an in-depth, prior knowledge rather than what most people do nowadays - which is bone up on something relatively narrow and then try to remember it as short-term recall for the show.”
Gary is right in as much as the average specialist topic in the most early years did tend to be a lot wider than the average topic today. However some very wide topics do still make it onto the show. For example, in 2009 Roger Canwell took the subject “Britain between the Wars” in the 2009 Grand Final – a mind bogglingly wide subject encompassing history – politics – culture etc. etc. In the 2010 series Ron Ragsdale took “Egyptology”. I could give another couple of examples of wide ‘portmanteau’ subjects, although I accept that I am to an extent arguing against myself through the fact that I have to work hard to dig up specific examples of recent wide subjects. Gary’s point is, I think, summed up by what was said by either Nancy Wilkinson, the first champion, or possibly Patricia, the second. She talked of the need to distinguish between ‘savoir’ and ‘connaitre’ – to understand the whole subject, or merely to be acquainted with the facts. I’m not 100% sure that I’d agree that the majority of contenders only pick something they know they can bone up on relatively easily. From my own viewing I still see a lot of people whom I’m sure come on to test their own knowledge of a subject that is a particular interest of their own. Witness the number of people who produce great specialist rounds in the first round, then bomb in the semis on specialist. If it was merely a job of boning up for them, then there really oughtn’t to be that much of a difference between any of their specialist rounds. Yet there often is.
“it is the fact that the first half of Mastermind is essentially watching other people attempt memory recall that you can't play along at home with, that is the show's major, gaping flaw. Certainly, it's why I believe UC gets much better viewing figures - the questions there may be challenging but at least you know you can attempt them. People watch GK quizzes largely to play along at home and if you can't do this for half the programme, it is a significant failing for a knowledge-based gameshow.”
Only if the format offers no compensation in return. You remember that Mastermind moved to Radio 4 after the final Magnus series in 1997. It stayed for three series – 1998 – 2000, before being resurrected by the Discovery Channel. I’m probably not the only fan to think that it didn’t work anything like as well on the radio. Why not ? Because you lost the drama, which is all played out on the contenders’ faces. Alright, people who have appeared on the show before like Gary and me are not the average viewer, I admit, but I suggest that part of the appeal of the show is the drama of each round – and whether or not you can answer any of the questions at home or not is relatively immaterial to this. Don’t underestimate the amount of ‘play along at home’ question there are, either. On Friday there were between 75 and 80 GK questions asked altogether in 16 minutes – and that compares favourably with the very best quiz shows .
“The other bugbear I have is that some of the SS questions are just too easy, possibly in a misguided attempt to improve the 'play at home' factor. Take the other night: I had only vaguely heard of the chess champion, but the first question asked where he was born, and added the info that it was the capital of Georgia. So most people with a grasp of geography would get it, no 'specialist subject' knowledge of Mr Petrosian needed. If you are going to make the specialist subjects so narrow, then should the layperson be able to get 2 or 3 a round right, as I seem to consistently do, through either educated guesses or non-specialist knowledge?”
Well, you either want people to be able to play along at home to keep them interested, or you don’t. Actually, I think the inclusion of a couple of accessible questions in some of the SS rounds is a deliberate thing on the part of the setters to help contenders. Nobody is put on the show to embarrass themselves, and hence the appearance of a couple of sitters in each round. I think it’s more obvious to people like Gary and me, because we are quizzers, and we know the things that a good quizzer would just never, ever get wrong. I have no problem with putting a couple of sitters in each round. I do have a problem though where it is blatantly and clumsily done, and the example Gary pointed out from Friday is just that. After all, it wasn’t REALLY a question about Petrossian at all. It was a Geography question – what is the capital of Georgia. I agree, I don’t like this sort of thing. I don’t think that the average person on the street would necessarily get 2 or 3 right with every specialist round, though.
“-The solution I think is to actually make the show like the website, in that your specialist subject has to come from a predefined, very broad category such as 'History', 'Geography' or 'TV'. Viewers could then play along, particularly if the contender picks their 'favourite subject' and you are then also searching for someone with an excellent general and specialist *knowledge*, rather than someone with - potentially - a good-to-fair GK but brilliant short-term memory recall.”
I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t like this. One of the things about MM as it is now, which I think it can be proud of is that it offers the total amateur the chance to play, and at times match the serious quizzer. If you did this, then – and this is just my opinion, I admit – then I think you’d just be making it easier for the fanatical quizzers, who already would have a very good grounding in most of these subjects before they start. I don’t totally agree that it would help you find the true polymath either. I offer myself as an example. I could tell you facts about many, many books I haven’t read, songs and pieces of music I haven’t listened to, and films or TV shows I haven’t watched. I need to know ABOUT them for quizzes. But it doesn’t mean that I actually KNOW them. OK, maybe this is long term memory recall rather than short term memory recall, but it’s still primarily recall. To a large extent, that’s the nature of quiz shows. That’s what sets a show like Only Connect apart. On OC, it’s not enough just to know a lot of stuff. On many other shows – well, on many other shows it is.
“ -How often is the outcome virtually decided by the end of the SS round, suggesting that the recall has far too much current importance (you corroborate this in the above blog saying it became a 2-horse race at half-time)? Again, I think the expansion of the GK to 2 and a half minutes for R1 may be acknowledgement of this (and not just because the 'chats' were often excruciating telly!) “
Yes, I must admit that when we moved to 2 and a half minute rounds for GK, I did think that shows were no longer going to be decided at all by the SS round. I thought that if there was a quizzer in the bunch, then the quizzer would win – nuff said. Quite often there doesn’t seem to be a quizzer in the bunch though. In a way the chats were there to show that the contenders did in fact ‘know’ their subjects, albeit that John H. would sometimes ignore their subject completely in the chat. The dropping of the chats proved a point about making large changes to an original format which I’ll say more about when I address Gary’s last point . I don’t know without looking just how many shows are decided at half time – it might be worth comparing last year’s round one to the round one in 2010 to see if there’s any noticeable difference. When I have time once term ends I may well have a look at this. Interesting question.
“-I think it has to change to do anything other than attract its current 'hardcore' audience (and maybe secure a long-term future) and get some way towards it's previous popularity, and I think it could do this without 'dumbing down' or altering its status as the pinnacle of TV quizzing. “
For a format to achieve the longevity of MM it needs the right elements to come together, and a bit of luck. Once you change those elements you are taking a gamble. As William Goldman said in “Adventures In the Screen Trade “ ( one of the best books about Hollywood ever written ) – “Nobody knows anything.” Alright, he was talking about movies, and the way that when a hit happens it’s usually a happy accident, and something which often cannot be repeated, but the principle holds good for TV as well.
I don’t know if you ever watched “Discovery Mastermind”. The producers of the show carried out some bold experiments with the format of the show – shorter rounds – a different format for qualification for the final – background music etc. While it had some excellent contenders, and a very worthy champion in Michael Penrice, I think it was fair to say that as a show, it was a bit pants. That’s my opinion, anyway. Tweaks can revitalise a show to a certain extent, but they are a gamble. For example, the inter round chats were an innovation for the Humphrys era. I don’t know about you, but as a contender I hated it while John was talking to the others before their rounds, and when it was my turn, although I tried to be as perky and interesting as I could, all I really wanted to do was get on with the round. The whole point of MM, I always thought, was that it was stripped to the essentials. No nonsense, no time wasted getting to know contenders. If they won, we’d get to know more about them later on. Or maybe we wouldn’t, and that didn’t matter either. Personally I thought getting rid of them was the right thing to do.
It’s a different world from 1980, the year when one MM edition had almost 20 million viewers. I don’t see a serious quiz show, of the level of MM/UC/OC or the late lamented 15 to 1 ever achieving a mass audience in the foreseeable future again. I don’t think that’s a realistic ambition for the show. If the show doesn’t sustain its audience – oh, this feels like sacrilege to say it – then maybe it has had its time. I hope to goodness that this is not the case. Personally I don’t think that it is. But if it is the case, then I’m not sure that tweaks, or wholesale changes to the format would save it – and indeed they’d be in danger of hastening its demise.
All of the above is just my opinion, and as always, feel free to disagree.