Why Pointless is the best Quiz programme on TV

Pointless Celebrities on BBC One

Pointless:  5.15 weeknights on BBC1

(and Celebrity Pointless: occasional Saturday afternoons)

Pointless is a remarkably sophisticated programme, masquerading as a daytime quiz.  For those people who have NOT seen this programme, the format is explained below.  Like most quizzes, it’s entertaining and informative  but that;’s not what makes it special.  Pointless is special because its success is based on appealing to six audience needs:

To think about people they love or have loved.  We see contestants who love each other (or who like each other very much) – old friends, family, partners, current workmates – enjoying the thrill of playing a game together.   Unlike the Weakest Link, or Golden Balls, the mood is supportive, and friendly.  The competitive element is VERY understated.  So the audience feels drawn in – to the relationships and to the people – and compares them with people they know.  Some contestants are quiz fans, but many seem to have come on the programme simply as a way to have a fun time with someone they care about.  This feels very unusual.

To take part.  You don’t have to join in to enjoy watching television, but with quizzes, it’s hard not to throw out answers.  With Pointless the viewer is competing with the contestants, with the public, and with their own memory.  The programme also teases out the market researcher that sits deep within all good people – assessing which answers will be well-known and which won’t.  It can change how you feel about the population and how you fit in, as a way to judge your own personal identity – confirming how you relate to others.  For those viewers who have been at home all day because they are not working or retired, Pointless validates them as involved people, giving them information, and asking for a contribution, in the same way that people at work are used to.

To feel smart.  It’s about personal recognition, and the need to feel good about yourself.  Most quizzes mix popular culture (at the start), with more worldly questions (for the big money).  Pointless respects trivia AND ‘stuff we ought to know’ and treats them as equals.  Audience members feel good about themselves because they can usually have a stab at most questions. And most will have their own area of interest so that everyone can feel an expert from time to time.  Obscure film parts, celebrity knowledge and sporting trivia sit alongside periodic tables and respectable encyclopedic wisdom …  One unusual aspect is the combination of the two hosts.  They are clearly smarter than the viewer and most of the contestants (and rather posher too), Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman undercut this by their extreme politeness and respect for the (never less than ‘great’) contestants, and by making fun of each other.  And with silly jokes.   Allowing the host to answer questions himself – often in impressive style – might turn viewers off.  With Alexander, it never does.

To see success rewarded, a little.  Times are tough.  No-one wants to see contestants winning money by guesswork, or pure luck, especially when it is funded from the license fee.  On Pointless the money is almost too small (even Bob Monkhouse would struggle to find £1000 impressive), but it always looks like a treat.  Contestants want to win, but no-one came on the show for the money.   But when they win significant money, it feels great.

To integrate with others.  This is where the timing of Pointless at 5.15 is so perfect.  For some, 5-6 is the hour before fellow householders get back from work – for these it’s an indulgence before dinner and distractions.  For many in London, the idea that swathes of the British workforce can finish work at 5 and be home for Pointless at 5.15 sounds old-fashioned or quaint at best, and lazy and trade-unions-gone-mad at worst.  For these millions arriving home, Pointless offers a way gently to bridge their separate lives of work and domesticity.

To make an easy selection.  We know that the Paradox of Choice dictates that when you a lot of options are available, you suffer from what Barry Schwartz calls ‘an escalation of expectations’ – a feeling that your selection needs to deliver in a big way, because you are missing so many other options in order to consume it.  More choice can mean misery and insecurity.  Compare Pointless with QI – a similarly entertaining and informative programme with a quiz element.  It is scheduled in prime time, and the viewer will sometimes feels that they are missing something really special (and that QI will show up on Dave later anyway).  With Pointless at 5.15, there’s far less competition.  And being on at the same time each day, audiences can tune in without thinking – it becomes an automatic response at a time of day which is more routine than later in the evening

In sort, it’s a cleverly designed format which is perfectly cast and scheduled at a time when it fits audience needs best

And then there’s…

Pointless Celebrities

This programme is identical to Pointless, except that contestants are ‘celebrities’ and money goes to charity.  And it is scheduled on Saturday afternoons.   It has its moments, but lacks the charm of the original, because it fails to deliver on the audience needs described above.  The relationships between the celebrities and each other feels contrived, and it reminds the viewer that our charming hosts are insiders and celebrities themselves.  Suddenly the celebrities are being asked to test their knowledge against the ordinary public, and who cares how that turns out?  Saturday afternoons are less habitual than weekdays, and the need to reintegrate, to feel good about yourself, and to make a straightforward selection are lost.  It’s not a bad show because the format is so solid, but the bits that make Pointless so special are dissipated.

The Pointless Format:

Each day, four pairs of contestants are whittled down to one.  They are asked questions for which there are (usually) many correct answers.  Success comes to those who provide an answer which is correct, and which is relatively unknown.  We know which answers are well-known and which are not, because all questions have been answered by 100 people beforehand, who have been given 100 seconds to write down as many answers as they can.   So, asked to name a Country whose name ends in ‘e’, a contestant answering ‘France’ will receive many points, because it is a popular answer.  Suriname and Singapore earn fewer points.  The contestants with the most points is eliminated (or in the head-to-head round, is eliminated after a best-of-three).  In the final round, the pair of contestant have to come up with a ‘Pointless’ answer, that was provided by none of the 100.