The People Versus

Sunday, August 13, 2000 by

It’s the new quiz from the makers of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, they cried.

Of course, it’s also the new quiz from the makers of Everybody’s Equal. But the prospects for this looked pretty good. The budget of the series is apparently unlimited, so they’ve got plenty of money to spend on the design and getting the series absolutely right. The run also appears to be open-ended, and it’s on three times a week, so there’s plenty of time to get everybody hooked. So surely it can’t fail.

The concept of the series sounds exciting enough, too. There are three contestants on each show who answer questions and get £5000 for each answer, and they’re not limited as to how long they can stay on the show or how much they can win, as long as they keep on getting questions right. The catch is, the questions are devised by the viewers, and if the contestant gets one wrong, they’ll be replaced by the viewer who sent in that question. Simple.

In principle, though, it doesn’t work so well. The beauty of Millionaire was that the format was so straightforward you could pick it up after a minute. You phoned up, you went on the show, then you answered questions in a row until you won a million pounds, you gave up or you got one wrong. That’s it. Whereas in The People Versus the rules are riddled with catches.

As there are three contestants at a time, they all have to be asked questions, so each one comes around in turn, which means we can’t get to know the contestants as well as onMillionaire. They answer questions based on five specialist subjects, which automatically limits the audience’s interaction with the programme – if you have no interest in the subjects, you can’t set a question. In fact, even if you do have a question, the chances of them being used are quite slim – each subject comes around every five rounds, and what are the chances of anyone lasting six rounds? Also, the unlimited prize money makes it sound like a step up from Millionaire, and while £5000 is of course not to be sniffed at, it still means they have to answer 200 questions to get to the mythical million.

Seemingly it’ll take an age to get to that number because the main problem with the show is that it’s too easy to progress and win something decent and, more fatally, it’s so bloody slow. Kirsty Young is a pleasant enough presenter (and despite what some people may think, you don’t need to be a bastard à la Tarrant to be a decent host) but she does take far too much time over everything. Let’s take the first round, where the contestants have to answer one question to progress, as an example.

So, moody lighting, big jingle, and pointless 360-degree pan by the camera, before the first contestant is introduced and we see their first specialist subject. They then get offered a choice of five questions on the subject. Kirsty reads them out. They then choose one question. Kirsty asks if they’re sure. They say yes. Then Kirsty asks if we should light it. They say yes. Then Kirsty reads out the question again and says who sent it in. They answer. Then Kirsty gets the person who sent it in on the phone and says hello. They say hello and say whether the contestant got it right. Then the contestant wins five grand. And that’s it.

Then they get the opportunity to answer another question for some more money. If they say yes, Kirsty asks whether they’re sure and the whole thing starts again. If not, we move on to the next contestant and the whole thing starts again. Then after everybody’s answered at least one question the whole thing rolls on to the next subject and the contestants must answer two questions to progress.

Now that could work on its own, as a straightforward – if torturously slow – quiz. But then we were introduced to some “lifelines”, which seem to be just ideas rejected from Millionaire. So the contestants are offered three “flips”, which, according to Kirsty at various points during the show, seem to allow the contestant to replace a question with another one. Or do they allow the contestant a clue to answer a question? Or maybe they remove a question. It was never made clear. They’re also offered the opportunity to “buy” a question, which involves losing £10,000 from the money won so far and getting a bye to the next round. But what purpose does that serve? It means the contestant loses money to progress to an even harder round where the chances of making money are slim, so why bother?

Of course, the programme could bypass these flaws if the viewer was able to play along at home, as we can during Millionaire. Unfortunately, this aspect is destroyed by the slow pace, as a grand total of seven questions were asked in the first half-hour. One contestant answered just one question in the entire programme, so it seems quite easy to stay on there for a few shows without doing very much at all. For most of the show we watch the three contestants deciding whether they want to answer a certain question or not, and while Millionaire is testament to a leisurely pace working, that series has contestants we get to know well deciding whether to go for a large amount of money and risking all their winnings. Here we’re seeing contestants we don’t know very well going for relatively small amounts of money with no risk involved, as all the money already won is safe. So who cares?

It could work if we had some real smartarse in the chair for weeks on end and then the public could be racking their brains trying to come up with questions to get rid of them, but all the contestants so far seem nice enough people, and besides, it’ll take weeks before anyone’s got to that stage. And even then they could choose really obscure subjects so nobody could think of any questions.

The first programme didn’t show how a viewer would take over from a defeated contestant, and it looks like there will be even more complications when someone does – the viewers are at home and speak to the studio on the phone, so if a contestant goes out after their first question in the show, what happens until the replacement gets to the studio? The programmes are recorded a day before transmission, which means that there can’t be contestants “on standby”. It could get to the situation where all three contestants are out after five minutes, so what do they do then? No wonder Kirsty’s padding it out so much.

After show one, The People Versus is fast becoming the televisual equivalent of watching paint dry. Just as Eldorado was billed as “the new EastEnders“, Filthy Rich And Catflap “the newYoung Ones” and Hippies “the new Father Ted“, so The People Versus was billed as “the newWho Wants to be a Millionaire“. And like those three, will surely eventually be sidelined on the producer’s CV.


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