There are many peculiar things about British television. But perhaps the oddest is our obsession with Saturday night. I haven’t conducted a major survey of the entire planet’s TV viewing habits yet, but I have spent plenty of time in the United States, where the networks by and large ignore it, assuming, quite understandably, that most adults are out having fun instead of sitting on their sofas waiting to be entertained.
Even NBC’s venerable Saturday Night Live, hosted each week by the some of the biggest names in showbiz, doesn’t start until 11:30pm, giving everyone the chance to get home from their night at the movies, the diner, roller-disco or whatever. Yet in the UK we’ve somehow reached the entirely counter-intuitive situation in which Saturday evenings are all about staying in and watching two-and-a-half hours of people trying to sing in tune or dance in time.
Viewing figures for shows like The X Factor (11.5 million viewers), Strictly Come Dancing (13.37 million), Britain’s Got Talent (12.23 million) and, yes, even The Voice UK (9.5 million), at least in its early, chair-spinning phase, still regularly get the highest ratings of the week.
In the US, these blockbuster talent shows are midweek affairs. No network boss would dare consign them to the Saturday-evening dead zone. But this unique British cultural phenomenon is about to go through something of a change.
At a recent Bafta event, I interviewed the major channels’ entertainment commissioners and they were in broad agreement that they can’t keep relying on Simon Cowell’s talent shows and a bunch of celebrities dancing for the rest of scheduling eternity (both shows have been on for nine years now). ITV and BBC1 in particular are both dabbling in new Saturday-evening formats that don’t involve judging panels and cover versions of I Will Always Love You.
Though BBC1 may have failed miserably with its crackpot 2011 effort Don’t Scare the Hare (a game show involving a robotic hare – it was taken off after six episodes), they’re going for bold, playful quiz and game show concepts.
We’ve got the hectic whirlwind of I Love My Country, which takes the comedy panel show format and turns it into something akin to mass hysteria. Next is That Puppet Game Show, which takes the comedy game show format and adds Muppets – well, puppets – from the Jim Henson Company.
Even the host is made of felt – Dougie Colon (pronounced cologne).
As for ITV, it’s offering Big Star Little Star, a series hosted by Stephen Mulhern in which celebrities team up with their children to win money for charity (apparently some famous people did actually agree to this). And it has also filmed something called Prize Island, in which contestants try to win prizes on an “exotic” island, although there are persistent rumours that this show has been indefinitely shelved due to quality- control issues – ie it’s a bit rubbish.
Now, one might point out that none of these shows sounds groundbreaking; I Love My Country’s innovation, for example, is to make the contestants and presenter stand up the entire time instead of shoving them behind standard panel-show desks, while the Muppets have been around for more than 40 years. Such is the relentless pressure on TV bosses from critics like me to come up with stuff that isn’t another singing and dancing contest, that these new shows should feel like vague attempts to do something fresh with the schedule.
Until The X Factor and Strictly return in the autumn.
Boyd Hilton is a showbusiness expert
The Puppet Game Show starts on Saturday 10 August at 6:45pm on BBC1