Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gary's points about Mastermind

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.


Radinden said...

Dave (and Gary),

I find this exchange very interesting, especially as I approach the subject as a (former) quizzer who played almost everything except Mastermind.

While I skim through your weekly summary of the show (and Mr Weaver's too), I only tune in to Mastermind if I actually know one of the contenders; and even then I tend to skip the specialist rounds of the other contenders. I appreciate that the specialist subjects are one of the ways in which Mastermind is distinctive, but to me they are also really rather tedious - and I would have thought that I should be right in the middle of the core audience.

I have three problems with the specialist subjects. First, very simply, I don't care about many of the subjects. As you yourself have commented previously, the worst possible answer to a quiz question is "I don't care", yet that is my reaction to most of the specialist questions. It perhaps also does not help that many of the subjects - and I'm going to tread carefully here, for fear of causing unnecessary offence - reflect a certain middle-aged Radio 4-listening view of the world, being particularly skewed towards writers and literary series, other creative arts, and history and historical figures. By definition, these subjects - along with certain elements of popular culture, such as television series and film franchises - offer a definitively-bound answer space, permitting the dedicated contender to study the entirety of a subject, without fear that the question writers would approach it in a different way; they can be contrasted with many subjects from (for example) the sciences or the "-ologies", which tend to have much 'fuzzier' margins. Sadly, these latter subjects are ones which I would tend to find more interesting.

Second, the subjects do seem to be becoming increasingly narrow: too often a specialist subject seems to involve just the works of a particular individual, or even just a particular group of an individual's works; it seems actually less usual these days - though this may be a trick of my memory - to hear someone take a subject introduced by the classic "life and work of" formulation. This means that the questions tend to become also more detailed, so as to maintain the parity of difficulty between specialist subjects; for example, if one has not seen a particular television programme, I find no interest in watching someone try to recall a particular character's response to another character's line, or a plot detail of no inherent significance beyond the show's universe.

Further to this, however, the third problem is that I don't feel that I actually find out anything of interest about most of the specialist subjects: their inherent specificity (and the aforementioned detailed questions) preclude any indication of the subject's context or wider importance. In fact, I often used to find myself coming to the end of two minutes about a particular person very little the wiser as to why I should have heard of them, or what they did that was actually notable. In fact, to pick up the point about savoir and connaître, I get the feeling that neither the contenders nor the question setters could actually write an essay discussing the subject, even if they could tell you every last detail about the subject's mother's budgerigar.

None of this is to deny that a lot of people do enjoy the show - you included, of course - but I personally would enjoy it much more (and watch it regularly) if the specialist subjects were just a bit broader. I wouldn't go as far as Gary - "geography" is a category, not a specialist subject - but I certainly wouldn't allow anyone to specify beyond the classic "life and work of" level, or to take a subject that necessitates minor plot point and dialogue questions to make it challenging.

Ok, rant over!

All the best,


drgaryegrant said...

Hi Dave (and Rob),

Thanks very much for such an in-depth reply; I have to say I was a bit embarrassed when I had to break my post into two, as it was too long to post as one response, so I'm glad that it didn't put you off reading it! I thought you may disagree; for obvious reasons, I know that the show is important to you, as you acknowledge!

The slightly irritating thing is that I could answer your post much more easily if I could comment on my own recent experience, but I can't and won't, so I will probably take up this discussion again in the new year when I've been on.

However,just to address a few things: first, there is no reason why UC should have a bigger audience than MM. Both are tough, highbrow quizzes. Which is better - to have a loyal but smallish audience, or one of BBC2's highest regular audiences, for similarly pitched shows? UC is hardly 'Push The Button with Ant and Dec'! Both shows audiences have dropped since the heady (and never repeatable) era of the 1980s but MM, proportionately far more. And it has to be down to the format. In this era, shows live or die by viewing figures - MM is not immune (as we saw in 1999). And although I'm critical, I have affection for it - I want it to keep going.

Second, to end the savoir/connoitre problem, you should only allow broad topics, unlearnable in their entirety in 6-12 weeks. Nearly everybody I've met who has been on the show revised like mad for their SS - yes, most people picked things they had a prior interest in (I am in a minority, I think, in picking 'tactical' subjects like the planets, or as I did this time, the 7 wonders, and starting from scratch!) but what they knew or didn't know on the night was based on short-term, not long-term study. Just look at what people say on the final 'filmed segments' about the amount of work they are putting in!

Third, Rob is right in that the choice of SS often has a bearing on how well contenders do. Pick a narrow subject, or someone with a smallish canon of work (eg JK Rowling, not Agatha Christie - though the chestnutty 'The Novels of Emily Bronte' or 'The Operas of Beethoven' are obviously better, if unlikely to be permissible!) rather than something science based, broad or a bit woolly (eg 'Western Ceremonial Magic', say) and you stand a far better chance. I'd say that this has a much bigger bearing on heat 1/semi SS score discrepancy, though to prove it I'd have to do some major stat analysis!

Lastly, I agree that MM's main attraction is that you get roughly 80-90 fat-free, good GK questions a show, but why do you have to sit through 15 minutes of, to my eyes, flannel before getting to them? I know many people who fast forward the iPlayer or Sky+ machine to halfway through - I often have! I'm sure Rob has done, too. Equally, as far as drama goes, the main drama of watching the contender's increasing panic/confidence/concentration/despair should be in round 2, but you know as well as I do that anyone 7 or 8 points behind after the SS has, under most circumstances, a snowball's chance in hell of winning, so often that is lacking when it should matter most. I don't think the amount of drama in the first, SS round is enough to rescue it, but that's my opinion.

And, yes, I totally agree that the 'chats' were awful as a contender. They made for dreadful telly too - grilling someone on camera, in front of a live audience, who is already wracked with nerves for 2 minutes and expecting them to be interesting or witty just ain't gonna work!

But I do see where you are coming from...I just think MM could be a better show, and I want it to be, and I want it to stay on my telly, and not get cancelled, or shunted from pillar to post. And like I said, I will probably take this up in April (or thereabouts) again, so be warned! Many thanks for the reply though! Gary said...

I've read the comments and posts on this with interest; I'd like to just respond to one comment you make, Dave:
"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."
Both times that I entered MM, I did better in the first round than in the semis. I'd say that the main reason was the shorter length of time to prepare for the semifinal. In the last series, I spent at least 12 weeks on Josephine Baker (scored 18) but only had 8 weeks to do Butch Cassidy (scored just 7). There were other factors in that poor performance, but if I'd had as long to study for the semi as for the first round, I'd certainly have done better than that.

Paul Steeples said...

Interesting thoughts. I think there are two areas to consider - the attractiveness of the show to viewers and the experience for contestants. I'll take them in turn.

I think you can overstate the small size of MM's audience. The production team told me that it's still one of BBC2's most popular programmes (always in the top ten), and the audience is incredibly loyal - they can mess the scheduling about (which they do) and they still all come back again. This means the format must be doing something right. However, it is true that some people won't watch it, and that the problem for many of them is the SS round. I know the production team work hard to get a mix of subjects (arts, popular culture, sport and history in the case of my first round game), but even then there are programmes where the general public can probably answer very few SS questions. This matters to some people, but not to everyone. Beyond Gary's suggestion, I can't see what can be done about this without changing the whole programme.

As people who saw me on MM will know, I tended to put in an average perfomance on SS and then recover the situation (until the final, anyway) on GK. As you can imagine, therefore, I like the extended GK round. However, the fact remains that MM winners have always done excellently on both SS and GK (Ian and Jesse certainly did in the last two), and you can't do that just by cramming. Unless and until someone wins on the basis of faultless but boring SS and hopeless GK (which I can't see happening), my view is if it ain't broke, don't fix it....

DanielFullard said...

I find this very interesting and have linked to it on my blog as I think its worth a read and also put my view up.......

Londinius said...

Hi Rob

Don’t worry – that’s not a rant ! We are all of us entitled to our opinion, our likes and dislikes. With regards to the Science questions I remember someone – I think that it was Bamber Gascoigne – commenting that Science questions are much harder to frame, for precisely the reasons that you gave in your post. Which may be one reason why UC does actually do better in terms of audience than MM. I’ll say a little but more about this in reply to Gary.I don’t want to give the impression that I am a totally blind devotee of the show. I do prefer the GK rounds to the SS rounds myself. But I do also think that the show would not be the same without the SS rounds. It wouldn’t be MM. Which is not to say that there is no room for debate over what should be offered as a specialist, and what the scope of such subjects should be. There has been debate over this quite a number of times during the show’s history , and I’ve little doubt that there always will be.

Hi Gary

Blame ( or thank ) yourself for my in depth reply. If you hadn’t written such an interesting comment in the first place I wouldn’t have written in anything like as much detail. I look forward to your forthcoming appearance, and to your comments afterwards. Do you know, I’m not sure that I agree that there is no reason why UC should have a bigger audience than MM. Its not just about the questions, it’s the nature of the show. The teams are allowed on UC to demonstrate more personality than you want from contenders on MM. Sometimes JP is almost worth the price of admission himself on UC. UC is more of a head to head contest as well – what with the buzzers etc.

As I said, I really look forward to your own comments about your appearences in this series, and hope that you’ll be willing to share them with all LAM readers.


I know who you are now ! Gillian, it’s a pleasure to have you on board ! It’s difficult to make hard and fast pronouncements on the effect of having a greater /lesser amount of time to prepare. I can only speak of my own personal experience. Thinking back to 2007, I think I had about 8 weeks to prepare for the first subject – score 14 and 2 passes – about 12 weeks for the semi – 15 and no passes – and 5 weeks for the final – 15 and no passes. There were no huge discrepancies between the scores despite the differing amounts of time I had to prepare. But hey, maybe I was just lucky in as much as maybe my final subject needed less learning time. I don’t think so , though. I think it was simply because I was in a state of pure blue funk over the final. I never thought I’d win, but I absolutely didn’t want to be left thinking – if only I’d worked harder. As it was I spent three and a half weeks learning SS for the final, and the last 10 days just working on my weakest GK areas, so that if any ‘sitters’ in those categories came up I had a chance of getting them right.

I do still think that a number of people who appear on the show are doing so to test themselves on a particular passion for their specialist. Actually I had the luxury of doing this on champion of champions where I took the Bayeux Tapestry – which incidentally proved to be my best ever specialist score. Actually I can't remember how long I had to prepare - it was about 2 months I think.

Hi Paul

Congratulations Champ ! Very well done on your excellent win on Only Connect ! I agree with you that if you make huge changes to the SS round, then you change the programme. What you end up with won’t be Mastermind. Which is not to say that the show is above criticism. Far from it. AS I said earlier, the specialist rounds have provoked debate for pretty much the whole of the history of the show. And there’s nothing wrong with healthy debate.

Unknown said...

Hi David

It's Peter Reilly here. I agree with Paul, and I think many other BBC shows would kill for the viewing audience of MM. Our Grand Final had audience of 1.8M, I understand. It thinks it's fair to say that judging a show's quality purely on it's 'popularity' is fundamentally flawed (saturday night viewing springs to mind!) Without the specialist round, it ain't Mastermind!! In addition what I think attracts viewers is the overall dynamic of the show, that is, watching the contestants cope with pressure (or not, as the case may be) In short it's the whole package that makes people watch of which the SS round is merely one component.

Like you, David, I have an affection for MM, which obviously grows when you have an involvement. Certainly as someone with very good, but not spectacular GK, the SS round gave me the chance to play to my strengths - had MM been purely a GK quiz, then I suspect my progress through the rounds in 2010/11 would have been halted.

Best Wishes


Andrew B. said...

FWIW, I usually don't bother with the SS round, and here's why...

I'm a pretty keen chess player with an interest in chess history, and suspect I know more about this subject than the vast majority of people.

On the "Tigran Petrosian" round, I would have scored maybe 4 or 5 points (including "Tbilisi". Moreover, apart from his birthplace, I don't feel that I now know more about Petrosian than I did.

My view, again FWIW, is that I would much prefer it if the subjects were broader than they currently are, without wishing them to be as broad as (say) "Geography".

Londinius said...

Hi Peter

Many congratulations on your splendid achievements last year. Thanks for commenting.

Hi Andrew

Nice to see you back on OC ! You kept that one quiet !

Going back to MM, as I said the debate over SS has been going on pretty much since the programme first appeared. It will porbably go on for as long as the programme does. You're never going to have anything that satisfies everyone.


Andrew B. said...

Can you blame me?!

Well done to the Technologists, who were very friendly (as were all the other contestants we met) and worthy winners of the Wall special. (There is, incidentally, another such special due to be shown at some point).