Sunday, 11 October 2009

There's Only One Way To Find Out -

Now- I like University Challenge. I also like Mastermind. But which is the more dumbed down ? There’s only one way to find out . . . FIGHT !

I awoke this morning to see in today’s Sunday Times a feature detailing a supposed spat between Messrs Paxman and Humphrys. Reacting to the old chestnut about the double-D words ( Dumbing Down ) Jeremy Paxman is supposed to have said that University Challenge is in fact continually ‘dumbing – up’, and thatif people want to lay the charge of dumbing down anywhere, they should lay it at the door of Mastermind. According to the article John Humphrys was far from slow to rise to the bait, making comments about Jeremy Paxman’s underpants, and offering him the opportunity to appear on Sleb Mastermind if he thinks its that easy. Which I suppose is quiz master speak for “D’you want some then? “

Well, that’s how its all been reported anyhow. All good knockabout stuff, I suppose. However on reading the article it struck me that there was a rather pronounced anti –MM line to it, resulting either from the writer’s own bias, or from laziness. To give you an example of what I mean, the article compares some very obscure questions from UC, with some of the easier questions from last Friday’s GK rounds in MM. It also makes play of the fact that MM now achieves an average of 2 million and more viewers, while UC manages over 3 million.

In the interests of balance, lets look at some of the facts concerning the two shows : -

*FACT – Since MM’s BBCTV revival in 2003, UC has consistently earned higher ratings than MM. UC has a very loyal fanbase , who will watch the show year in year out. However ratings for MM are climbing, and most of the shows of the current series have achieved a very healthy more than 2 million viewers, despite being shown at 8pm on a Friday evening, and despite BBC2 Wales often showing it later on in the week.

*FACT – University Challenge is only open to current students. Mastermind is open to anyone of the age of 18 or over.

*FACT – In each Mastermind, each contender faces 4 minutes of intense individual questioning. In each UC, teams of 4 face about 25 minutes of questioning.

*FACT – In Mastermind it is essential to devote time and effort to learning a specialist subject. In UC it is not.

*FACT – Both shows ask questions across a wide range of subjects. The level of questions, taken across each show as a whole, is broadly comparable. Some questions on UC are more difficult than would be asked as GK on Mastermind, but this is probably balanced by the Specialist rounds. It is quite usual to hear the same questions being asked on both shows.

*FACT – In Mastermind your individual performance need not be affected by the strength of the opposition. IN UC a good team can be made to look poor or mediocre when playing another equally good team who happen to be good on the buzzer.

*FACT – Both shows have been hit by controversy earlier this year.

The more you look at it, the more you reach the conclusion that these are two very different shows, both excellent, both asking questions of a very demanding nature, and both probably catering for a similar core audience. Arguments about which is the most demanding can only ever be subjective at best, and pointless at worst.

So if I make a few observations about MM, then don’t please take it as an implied criticism of UC. I love UC, and if I perceived anyone to be attacking the show like this I would be equally vociferous in my defence of it.

Coming back to the original article, I found myself getting annoyed about some of the comments that accompanied the online version of it. One of the people who left a comment remarked that some of the Mastermind Specialist Subjects could be learned in an evening. Even allowing for deliberate exaggeration for comic effect, this is a ridiculous and in the strictest sense of the word, an ignorant comment. I’m presuming that the person who left it was referring to subjects such as this Friday’s The Films of Tim Burton. Perhaps he’d like to try and learn this subject in one evening. He might be interested to know that Tim Burton has made about 20 films. Just watching each of them once would mean an outlay of between 30 and 40 hours. Which wouldn’t be enough to let you get anywhere near Sarah Dakin’s score on Friday. Perhaps he’d like to try something else. How about last week’s old favourite, Egyptology ? Try learning that in one night. Unless, of course, you’re in the North or South pole where the night can last for weeks at a time.

Oh, but look at the subjects some people take – is the cry we still get. How can you put, lets say, The Life and Career of Jennifer Aniston against The Life and Work of Frida Kahlo, as happened in my first round heat of 2007 ? Yes, well, the same people who raise their voices in protest now would be the first to complain that the show is too elitist if we were to go back to shows containing only the traditional ‘highbrow’ subjects of the 70s and most of the 80s.

Well, lets return to the article in question. Presuming that things are the way that they have been reported, while it might be interesting to put Messrs Paxman and Humphrys together for a steel cage match, and let them fight it out until the last man is standing, on reflection I can’t help thinking that they should probably know better. Play nicely, boys. Or if you want a way to settle your differences, then how about this?

The Clark Plan For Peace

Both of you go on Sleb Mastermind, with the same subject – British Politics 1990 – 2007.
Then both of you captain a team against each other in a UC quiz. JP can have a team made up of , lets say, the captains of the last three UC winning teams, and JH can have a team made of the last three Mastermind champions.

Should any enterprising BBC producer be reading this, then yes, I am most definitely available, and would even act as MM questionmaster for their show for no added fee.


Belated Congratulations to Joseph of Bala, who won the last heat of Mastermind Plant Cymru to go forward to this Thursday's final. Commiserations to David of Bridgend, Lowri of Caerphilly, and Samuel of Brecon, who also took part in the show.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

An interesting and amusing post. I especially like your proposed solution. The 'dispute' is completely confected by the Times, which has fallen far from its once-supposed status as the 'journal of record'. News International (among other media conglomerates) is an implacable enemy of all things BBC, and they would love to use this light-hearted issue to crowbar one or both progs out of their cherished niches in UK culture. How better to do this than to encourage strife between them? Once you said that the shows are in very different formats, you'd said the lot. But then there'd be no story...

I would go make some toast during a Jennifer Aniston round myself, but you are definitely right in charging elitism. Yes, if pop culture subjects were still excluded, the complaints would still come, but the real root of it is basic enmity. I'm unsure as to why Sky could never make a rival show, but it is clear that they can't, or it wouldn't work.

I've also noticed that journalists in general don't seem to like top-level quizzes like UC and MM, perhaps because they are an assault on their innate arrogance, and also because 'knowledge professionals' are also often 'knowledge elitists'. Stick to 'Weakest Link', you lot! Cf. media hostility to Wikipedia.

As for online comment sections, they are a standing joke amongst journalists, and site editors, as well as a bit of a stumbling block to the individualist-anarchist view that people are essentially sensible, and tend to apply this good sense in direct proportion to their freedom from authority.

If ever you are tempted to pay any attention to the endless universe of ill-informed prejudiced and pointless opinion, just click through to the Daily Mail or YouTube and have a quick read.