The ABC isn’t supposed to care about ratings. They’re not a commercial broadcaster: their programming is meant to be judged on quality, not popularity. So when they do make a decision based on audience numbers, something’s gone seriously wrong.
A fortnight ago, comedy news quiz Win the Week returned to the ABC in the 8pm Wednesday timeslot. Two weeks later, and after rating around 250,000 viewers – roughly half of what the show running after it, Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell, usually pulls in – it was bumped back to 9.30pm.
With Win the Week stumbling in the ratings, is this the beginning of the end of Australia’s love affair with the comedy quiz?
To be fair, it’s always been a one-sided affair. Audiences love the rare quality example: our networks – especially the ABC – love churning them out one after the other. The result is a glut: this week alone alongside Win the Week there’s Spicks & Specks, Have You Been Paying Attention? (taking over Ten’s Monday night slot from previous comedy quiz Would I Lie to You?), The Hundred with Andy Lee, and Shaun Micallef’s Brain Eisteddfod.
It’s the ABC that’s repeatedly smashing the buzzer when it comes to greenlighting comedy quiz shows. Earlier this year we had panel show with questions Tomorrow Tonight; later this year we’re getting more of Question Everything, a panel show featuring comedians and questions. What replaced Win the Week at 8pm? Repeats of the ABC’s other comedy quiz, Hard Quiz.
There’s barely six prime-time dramas on free-to-air Australian television in a whole year; there definitely aren’t six sitcoms, or sketch shows, or non-comedy quiz shows, or current affairs shows, or much of anything that doesn’t have the word “reality’ in there somewhere. Comedy quiz shows have been a staple of Australian television for decades (remember Good News Week?), but in the last decade or so they’ve taken over like a weed.
It’s not hard to nail down the growth factors. They’re cheap, they’re easy to make, and if they connect with audiences they can rate through the roof. Have You Been Paying Attention? is a consistent winner for Ten. Micallef’s Talkin’ ‘bout Your Generation was the same a decade ago – and then was revived by Nine for a second bite of the cherry. Hard Quiz is a solid performer for the ABC, while Spicks & Specks is a series they won’t let die.
The flip side is the flops. The ABC’s initial replacement for Spicks & Specks, the word-based quiz show Randling, was a long running dud (the ABC had filmed 20-odd episodes before the first one aired) that killed off host Andrew Denton’s on-screen career. Win the Week regular Craig Ruecassel hosted comedy quiz The Unbelievable Truth on Seven a decade ago, where it vanished without trace (it’s not even listed on his Wikipedia page).
Other efforts like the Peter Helliar-hosted Cram! on Ten and the ABC’s Tractor Monkeys were pretty much failures straight out the gate. Paul McDermott hosted 75 episodes of Think Tank on the ABC in 2018 in his final hosting gig there to date. Ten’s attempt to make a local version of UK hit Pointless starring Mark Humphries turned out to be … well, you can make the joke yourself.
Until now the hits have largely justified the (many) misses. But it’s been a while since a new comedy quiz made any kind of impact. Have You Been Paying Attention? recently celebrated its 250th episode: Spicks & Specks is 17 years old. Hard Quiz might run forever, but with the ABC airing it pretty much every single week of the year even their audience might say enough eventually.
The problem with so many of these shows is that they’re pretty much all the same. Over and over again, we either get a series based on comedians battling to be funny while answering questions, or there’s a comedian host who battles to be funny in between contestants answering questions.
The similarities are sometimes even more specific. The ABC loves teaming up a female ABC presenter with a male comedian – in the last year there’s been Jan Fran and Wil Anderson (Question Everything), Annabel Crabb and Charlie Pickering (Tomorrow Tonight) and now Alex Lee and Craig Ruecassel (Win the Week). Does this approach result in a better show? The ABC clearly thinks so, as all three were given a second series.
On brand or just bland?
With so many of these quiz shows being so similar it’s no surprise they share the same flaw: they’re bland. The ones that work pick an approach and go hard with it. Have You Been Paying Attention? is barely a quiz; Hard Quiz is barely funny.
Win the Week falls somewhere in between, without the spark or wit of either. The pace is slow, the banter is forgettable, and the questions are just reworked news headlines. ‘More of the same’ is rarely a compelling sales pitch, especially when the ‘same’ has failed so many times before.
Even the show’s supposed twist isn’t much. Win the Week pairs regular folk with a (minor, often ABC) celebrity as their quiz partner, and then gives the regular contestant the chance to swap them for another contestant’s partner if they’re coming last. But the celebrities are just swapped around; they’re all still on-screen answering questions, so it makes no difference to the home viewer.
The question Win the Week – and most comedy quiz shows – need to ask is: why would anyone want to watch this? All too often, it’s clear they don’t have the answer.
Win the Week is currently airing at 9.30pm Wednesdays on the ABC, and is also available on iView.