Generally, gentle readers, Autumn has tended to have a pretty good press down the years. By way of an example, the first poem I ever really loved was John Keats’ “Ode To Autumn”. Without doubt, Autumn does have its delights, and one of them, for me, has been the return of Mastermind. Sad though this may sound to some, I’ve come to look on it as a reward for a week’s hard work at the chalkface.
Well, like me, you may well have noticed that the next series hasn’t started yet, which is a little surprising since in recent years, the new series has begun in August. I went to the BBC’s Mastermind website, and all it says is that there are no upcoming programmes. So I did a Google search for Mastermind 2019. The first things I found were articles from the beginning of August saying that the show is being put out to competitive tender. OK. Well, underneath that, I found the BBC’s own – what would you call it? – prospectus? Not sure. Anyway, it was the document giving information to prospective producers about the show, about what they were looking for, and about how to apply. I have no idea what this was doing on the net. Maybe the BBC are under a Freedom of Information obligation to put this sort of thing out there, being a publicly funded institution? It has only been out there since Monday. Presuming that it wouldn’t be out there on the net if it was not meant to be read, you can have a look at it yourself if you like – here’s the link - http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/commissioning/site/bbc-content-invitation-to-tender-mastermind-celebrity-mastermind-september-2018.pdf
It's quite a weighty document, but there were a couple of things which I noted. Firstly, for the new producer and team, their series won’t start transmission until August 2019. Now, I’m pretty certain that if there was going to be another series before this one, it would have started already, and it hasn’t. So it seems we have a long wait ahead of us for the next series.
The second interesting thing was this. In the document it states,“We wish to maintain the intellectual rigor of the programme, the precision of the questions and the format overall but we would be interested to creatively refresh the programme within these constraints. We wish to appeal to a broader audience potentially using social and digital.”
This is amplified a little further later on in the document,
“We wish to attract a wider and even more diverse audience and contestants for these series. We wish to explore how to cast a wider ranging contestant pool attracting younger and older contestants, and wider diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and disability. We’d like to have proposals for ways of making the show even more attractive to younger audiences for example through approaches to production and/or use of social media. We also want to capitalise on the BBC One celebrity version to drive new audiences to BBC Two and increase the overall appeal of the brand and we need to do all this without alienating the core audience. As far as possible we would also like to increase the Programme’s appeal on iPlayer and would be interested in proposals addressing this. One of the strengths of the existing format is the “play-along-ability” of the questions particularly in the general knowledge round.”
Very interesting. And no, I don’t think there’s necessarily anything to alarm lovers of the show, such as myself, in there. I think it that it’s always been a desire of the show’s producers to attract a wider net of potential contenders, and it’s not an easy thing to do. I may be wrong, but I think by far the largest number of applications still come from white middle aged men, for example.
Attracting a younger audience though, that’s just as problematical. If you look at the show since 2003, there have been changes to the format and presentation, in order to ‘freshen it up’. When regular Mastermind returned in 2003, we had 2 rounds of 2 minutes, chats between the rounds between John Humphrys and the contender in the chair, and no repechage places in the semis. Since then we’ve seen the repechage slots come back – good move – necessitating the end of the inter-round chats – good move again. We’ve also seen the change of the amount of time in the round, tipping the balance in favour of GK. Then in 2016 we saw the advent of the blue line of death around the score for the last 10 seconds, together with a bit of tension music. But this all comes down to tinkering, and I don’t think that there’s much you can do with the format other than tinkering. Otherwise it wouldn’t be Mastermind.
As I said, I’m not worried. I’ll be honest, attracting a younger audience is something a lot of TV shows would like to do. How you do it, though? Well, that’s another matter. I’m not a TV producer, and I’m very much an older audience, so I don’t really have any idea. I’m pretty sure that we are unlikely to see any of the following: -
· Viewers at home getting to vote in and ‘save’ contenders they like, and eject contenders they don’t
· A panel critiquing each contender’s performance (Let me tell you, tonight, you OWNED that chair)
· A sudden death quiz off between the two lowest/highest scoring contenders.
What we WILL see, now, that I don’t know. So all I really can do is, in case there are any prospective producers of the show reading, just give you an idea of what would be alienating to me as a member of the core audience:-
· Too much ‘jazzing up’ of the show. Sorry, but I like Neil Richardson’s “Approaching Menace” as the theme, and I like the lack of showbiz razzmatazz in each programme.
· Shoving the contenders’ personalities in our faces. I’ll be honest, I’ve never really enjoyed the ‘tell me what you do’ interludes on other quiz shows. As a contender I always found sitting through other contenders’ inter-round chats with John to be excruciating. Even though they were edited when broadcast I found these an alien and unnecessary element, and I hope that they, or any version of them, are never brought back. It’s fine to have the filmed inserts when you get to the final – that after all is a special occasion. But not on the rest of the series.
· Let’s get to the double D’s – dumbing down. This always has been, and probably always will be a contentious issue on Mastermind. I’m glad to see the BBC document make a commitment to ‘maintain the intellectual rigor of the programme, the precision of the questions’ – and hope that this will be adhered to. In my opinion - feel free to disagree – a lot of the allegations about the show supposedly dumbing down in recent years have been ill informed, and just plain wrong. I really, really, really have no axe to grind about the range of specialist subjects contenders can offer, and since I started reviewing the show back in 2009 there have honestly only been a very few occasions when I’ve felt that the specialist round has been noticeably too easy compared with the other rounds on the same series. What I would feel alienated by would be an editorial decision to lose balance between the more traditional subjects, and those more likely to appeal to a younger audience – for the sake of argument, a series in which a typical show consisted rounds on a current band, a series of contemporary graphic novels, Hollyoaks and A.N.Other. But I don’t think that would happen. The show can only use the subjects that the contenders are willing to use.
· Intrusive interactive elements. Let me give you an example of the sort of thing I mean. Let’s say the new producer decided to try to increase the playalongability of the show by having a caption with a multiple choice of 4 potential answers appear with each question. Now, if you want to do that sort of thing with the red button, then fine, go ahead, but I’d hate to see something like that forced on the viewers.
· A young, trendy question master. To be fair the document makes it quite clear that John will be continuing in the chair whoever gets to produce the programme.
Whoever wins the tendering process, I wish you the very best of luck. If you or a member of your family have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this post, feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email.