What I hate about Panel Shows

Whatever it is, god I hate it. And that “god” would be Odin, seldom not found showing his skills at wisdom contests. The “I hate” addresses the subject of this blog. Something that just has to stop…

There was I writing this, when the news broke that Stephen Fry is departing the QI throne of knowledge. There’d be no revolving hosts this time, that wouldn’t work on the sapient stroll of QI, but a rapid replacement in the form of fellow erudite wit Sandi Toksvig. Quick thinking as the nation falls to pieces.

It’s news. It’s on news bulletins and everything. Even bigger than Nick Hancock departing They Think it’s all Over, even more drop the mic than Mark Lamarr leaving Nevermind the Buzcocks. But we all know that the panel show will live on. And not change that much.

Six Degrees of Separation Panel Show BBC
15 seconds in and alarm bells are ringing (credit: BBC)

No, panel shows are the reliable staple of television, with a cost to viewer divided by diversity and news ratio that must make stressed executives’ eyes light up. The only drawback is that you can’t run them all the time if you have an irritating or cumbersome name like ‘BBC One’ or ‘ITV’. But you can certainly distribute them around channels like sandbags. They’re just great for that. In fact, stuffing out the schedules and running channels like Dave just wouldn’t be the same without them. Just think how many panel shows you could make with the budget of one episode of Top Gear...

The history of popular television records that panel shows have longer than average lifespans, maintaining the pension of long over-pensionable hosts and have an easily recyclable set. Often they’ve been around far longer than you could possible imagine. Would I Lie to You? Has been running on BBC One since 2007. By Odin’s beard.

The panel show pledge

It’s no magic trick. Unlike the trickier quiz show format, celebrity or otherwise, panel shows are second only to the news in their prescribed format. That said, I remember Channel 5 once tried to alter the news by making the anchor stand up.

Six Degrees of Separation Panel Show BBC
Waiting for a chemical reaction? (credit: BBC)

In the panel world you just need a cloth backdrop and a few lights. Ish. An audience. A host, and then two panels of two or three people, with two or four of those swapping in and out every week. Of course they make sense. It’s an easily understood and familiar format that won’t scare the heebie-jeebies, consonants or contemporary news knowledge out of the audience. Then you just need a hook, and let the variety fall to the scripters and revolving guests, though not the team captains.

All, crucially for a moderate budget.

But there’s one part of the formula that they keep getting wrong, and a recent one-off iteration that knocked me over the edge.

Before the Third Degree

Tying in to the Corporation’s Making it Digital season, BBC 2 put together a science themed version – pulling loads of people’s favourite things into 30 minutes called Six Degrees of Separation. The hook y’see was that the questions would draw the six connections between six seemingly unconnected objects.

Six Degrees of Separation Panel Show BBC
Want to leave the country? (credit: BBC)

Yes, it was nowhere near the awkward nadir of some panel shows. Where the unfunny in-jokes have skewed the balance (imagine a They Think it’s All Over reunion show), or where the contemporary hasn’t been kind: Never Mind the Buzzcocks and even, whisper it, Shooting Stars. Worse the ultimate rogue, if it had enough charisma to be super-powered, A Question of Sport.

Shudder. You can measure how dull that is by how it saw out They Think it’s All Over and is surviving A League of their Own.

As Six Degrees was all about science, it was naturally the polar opposite of the lightning contemporary Have I got News for You. It sat in the fine lilting tradition of QI rather than the heavy comedy offerings of Nine out of 10 Cats, Mock the Week or even Radio 4’s all too clever elder statesman Nicholas Parsons Just a minute. And there was nothing wrong with it, well almost nothing.

Affable flavour of the century Brian Cox did his usual everyman science thing as presenter, never lapsing into the silence that seems to loom. The teams were all great, packed with four experts in their field all happy to get stuck in. And of the comedic team captains, Ben Miller was having a great time in particular. He couldn’t stop laughing.

A bad start

But right at the beginning, all hope had been shot out the air by that staple of panel shows. The slow, pointless, meandering title sequence. Guaranteed to have you meeting the show’s opening applause standing on the shoulder of indifference.

Six Degrees of Separation Panel Show BBC
Has the cat left you yet? (credit: BBC)

It was plodding. A horrible, set of hieroglyphics telling us, very slowly what the show is. That’s really nothing against Niraj Chag on music duties or 12Foot6 on graphics – how could it be when they sit on credits alongside ‘Beetle wrangler’. They had to work the impossible (the obvious) out of nothing. No, the problems solely with the program commissioners. And yes, all panel show producers. Because it’s not alone in following a hideous formula. It’s exactly what happens at the top of every panel show, the tinkling music, the rolling camera jumping from expository graphic to another. Explaining excruciatingly the minutiae of a without being offensive to anything… Except mediocrity – who’s presumably packed it all in to spend a life holding on the phone for a spot on Ken Bruce’s Pop Master.

Yes, we know what a panel show is.

So when confronted with the minimal amount produces want or have to spend on them, the real question in any panel show is WHY BOTHER? Is anyone expected to remember them? Because I’m pretty sure that were they not there, no one would notice. Except me, now they’re seared into my mind, I actively hunt them.

Look at so many huge drama shows that now just don’t bother with a title sequence. Think back to Lost. One word, a chord and a shovel load of unsettle. And yet panel show’s still need them? No. Unlike the aim of most show, it’s not big, it’s miniscule, it’s not clever, it’s patronising. Cut it out.

Six Degrees of Separation Panel Show BBC
The punch line. Where I’m punching the screen. (credit: BBC)

Why the particular ire? I caught Six Degrees live on its broadcast on 14th September. And a week later caught a plane to find that diagonally in front of me someone was watching it on iPlayer. Yes, perfect air transit fodder. Right in my eye-line. I couldn’t look anywhere else, transfixed, I endured the damn thing again.

Please, spare me.

Either that or I’ll just stop watching the bloody programme and assume I’ve seen it all in the 30 second title sequence.

UK viewers have until Monday to catch Six Degrees of Separation on iPlayer. I’d skip to 0.31. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b06ccjc5/six-degrees-of-separation

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