Weakest Link versus Pointless versus the Chase

Asking questions

Three daytime quizzes:  The Weakest Link, The Chase and Pointless.  They’re all about answering questions to win money.  And yet they are so different…   Quizzes tell us something about social behaviour and about a country.  One study of Who Wants to be a Millionaire explained that the Slumdog Millionaire story is really the story of modern India: about how knowledge gained through adversity and education can drive you forward.  (The same study also found that quiz contestants with children won less money (risk aversion?) while those with more siblings won more (a wider circle?)).

Another piece, by Amir Hetsroni looked at the questions asked on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire in 5 countries and found that they all started with popular topics, before building up to more academic questions later.  Perhaps that’s obvious.  And cultural differences emerged – in Singapore they asked the fewest questions about politics, in India they ask the most about religion and about history (and in Australia the fewest). In the US they ask twice as many about popular culture…

ANYWAY, daytime quizzes…

The Weakest Link.  Various times, various channels

Anne Robinson. Audiences must like her, because if not there’s no excuse

This blog celebrates television and lovely audience members, but there are times when one does have to wonder.  The Weakest Link managed 1,693 episodes of .. well, what precisely? I haven’t watched every episode, but I did just watch one recently, purely as research.  It was as unpleasant as I remembered.

The questions are straightforward… easier at the start, basic facts you either know or don’t, delivered rat-a-tat-tat.

There IS something vaguely compelling about watching the ‘chain’ of correct answers and cash build up, and wondering if they’ll manage to bank the cash before they get an answer wrong – this puts me a little on edge.  It’s not a nice feeling.

The questions themselves aren’t interesting enough to offer any pride for getting one right, but viewers do get to think about who they might vote off. Perhaps the whole setting reminds the viewer of school in some peculiar way, but it all feels a little nasty and the scripts became tired ten years ago (it’s been going for 12).  When the contestants have been whittled down to the final three, the weaker two players can vote off the best one – which is just silly.

Mainly, the programme seems to be obsessed with money… in an awkward way.  And it’s about judging people and ejecting them – perhaps the appeal comes from allowing viewers who would never dream of being rude in public to get it out of their system. And then there’s Anne Robinson.  Perhaps she reminds them of their mother.

Presumably the audience research is positive about her. I can’t imagine how, and then there’s this.  The idea that Anne Robinson might be an aggressive tax avoider doesn’t really surprise, does it – her defence (should she trouble herself to come up with one) would be image consistency.

The Chase.  ITV1 at 5o’clock, weekdays

Bradley and the team from The Chase. Perfectly pitched for 5pm on ITV

It’s far warmer, and with fewer questions, but well pitched – and you get three bites (what is the answer, did the contestant get it right, and did the ‘Chaser’ get it right).  Which might seem laboured, as it does when Dale Winton spins it out on In It To Win It, but it doesn’t here because with each one, the viewer can gauge how they compared.  ITV researched the programme carefully (with the excellent market research firm Sparkler), before The Chase launched and changed a few of the elements, succeeding in finding the sweet spot between being a serious quiz and an entertainment.   And the questions are nicely judged between being gettable or, since it is multiple choice, guessable.  It manages the same question chain and intimidating element as the Weakest Link, but with far more charm.  Instead of contestants competing, they work together and the chase is genuinely fun to watch.  The contestants speak and explain their answers.  For the audience the programme gives them a cosy feeling of being entertained and learning at the same time.  And the thrill of getting questions right delivers on the fundamental human need we all have to feel good about ourselves.  And it just works at 5pm as a buffer between the daytime and the evening when we are reintegrating with our house, or our family, or crossing the margin between our work and leisure hours.

Like The Weakest Link, The Chase is a little too obsessed with money, but it manages the trick of seeming to be friendly about it.

It’s a really great quiz.   And it would be even more successful if it didn’t compete head on with…

Pointless.  BBC1 5.15

Pointless. I LOVE it. There. I’ve said it.

I’ve revealed before that it’s one of my favourite programmes.  It’s almost the complete opposite of The Weakest Link.  In place of the unfunny harridan, it has two charming hosts who clearly love each other, and questions that are both hard and easy at the same time.  I’ve written about why it’s so great here, one of the oldest blog posts on this site.  It eschews the big money, and is unafraid of parading its intelligence – a rare trick on mainstream TV – getting away by being so faultlessly polite.  It succeeds by delivering on a number of basic human needs, and by cleverly turning opinion polls into a quiz in a far more satisfying way than Family Fortunes.

They might want to shake up Alexander Armstrong’s phraseology a little – there’s something a little too calming about listening to the rules and introduction for the hundredth time.  But it’s the most minor of quibbles and I now feel bad for mentioning it.

In yesterday’s edition the four pairs of contestants included two young women who were friends, a father/ daughter, a lesbian couple and a husband and wife. Four lovely pairs of people competing, in a very gentle way, with each other…

Any market researcher who doesn’t find the programme compelling should get a new job.


What do these three quizzes say about modern Britain?  That it takes all sorts to make a successful quiz programme.  That sometimes we do certain things and look back a little aghast (the 1970s, Jim’ll Fix It, almost ALL fashion), and I’m afraid The Weakest Link seems hopelessly outdated and out of step with how we are in recession-ravaged and Olympian-inspired Britain.

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