Monday 27 July 2015

Behiveing predictably

While this jury still hesitates over its verdict on King of the Nerds UK, we discuss Hive Minds, the Fiona Bruce-fronted BBC Four replacement for Only Connect.

Google says: A hive mind is a group mind with almost
complete loss (or lack) of individual identity. A bit harsh.

Oh sorry! We meant to write "lateral-thinking-quiz" there, but "replacement for Only Connect", well, it just spilled out. Goodness. Still, just under seven years after Only Connect began, BBC Four have decided to see if there was anything else in the quiz category worth trying.

Excuse me a moment, because this is still a review of Hive Minds, but I feel a need to ask an otherwise unasked question. Only Connect began nearly seven years ago, and is not in any sense, a recent success story. Its audience has been steadily growing, and for a number of years it was very often the most-watched programme each week on its channel.

Why, then, has it taken so very long for BBC Four to attempt any other game or quiz programme? From the perspective of the UK landscape, maybe most game/quizzes seem to vulgar for the generally sophisticated BBC Four style, but OC was a perfect example that there is an appetite for an enhanced quigame, a BBC Four quigame.

I say this with half an eye on the world scene. There are huge cult successes like The Genius, WIDM, and De Slimste, that would fit more naturally on BBC Four than anywhere else on the UK channels. We see around the world, broadcasters taking risks, and often succeeding with, complicated, elegant, intelligent quizzes and games. There is a channel, in BBC Four, generally happy to risk alienating the mainstream viewer in favour of an occasional quiet, excellent, hit, and with a proven success on their books. 

None of them are quiz books. None.
In 2012, VCM could joke about being simultaneously the best and worst quiz on BBC4. Now, she lives on BBC2 and space was opened on BBC4 for something new, something impressively different.

Yet instead, 6.5 years after the first clue was revealed, BBC gave us The Quizeum, a show I literally couldn't watch enough of to review coherently, and now Hive Minds. And so I want to set this complaint out separate from the review proper: Hive Minds is hugely, hugely uninnovative. Almost everything about it has been carbon-copied or nearly-carbon-copied (silicon-copied?) from OC. There is no need to list, here, it will take enough restraint from the reviewer not to mention it in every sentence of the review proper. 

Perhaps, one would argue, there is no need to change what works, and indeed perhaps. This would irritate me less if Hive Minds were being made three or four years ago, or today, but accompanied by some other, more-experimental offering(s) from BBC Four. But it isn't, and so a general moan must foreshadow actual assessment of the programme.

This author then, as an admittedly staunch supporter of the quigame, is a little miffed that BBC4 has taken so long to rekindle its relationship with the genre, and is a little saddened further that the offering is so meagre.

And now the review proper.

Unremarkable titles, and a point early for the best original music this author has heard on a quiz in a number of years. Host Fiona Bruce, rather than being an entertaining-person-who-turns-out-to-be-knowledgeable, is a knowledgeable-person-who-turns-out-to-be-entertaining.

It is actually some accomplishment to be neither so similar in style to VCM that one could criticise, nor different but so much worse that one could criticise. Bruce manages this rather well; presenting the persona of slightly-over-excited-teacher: keen on the facts, but also often on the verge of laughter. We acknowledge her positive first impression on us, (something VCM didn't manage) although warn that it takes time for a host to become 'great' in the way that Only Connect's has.

We meet the teams, who are always three Only Connect players sat in a different order, and then before round 1, a demonstration of the 'Hives' that make up the show's USP. 

And, well, now seems about the time to mention it: there is a massive problem with Hive Minds. I will explain shortly why the problem is so awful, but let me first explain why it is a problem.

The Hive graphics are awful. They are simply horrid, firstly aesthetically they are not nice, but much more importantly, they are too visually noisy to be read easily. Each letter, in white, is surrounded by a black outline on all sides, then brownish shadow on some sides, then a hexagon, which is not monochrome but instead has a white light effect across the top, and on the top two sides. Then, as well as each hexagon having a depth-fade effect, to make it look like an individual object rather than part of a connected grid, there is a dark-brown and light-brown outline around each hexagon, meaning that, on the visual path between the white of one letter, and the white of the next, there are around 8 other colours to be seen, many of them paler versions of the other colours around. The grid is difficult to read. It is quite difficult to follow out an answer once you have been told where it is. It is exceptionally difficult to scan for an answer, or for a few answers.

Other commenters have suggested the font should be squarer, and perhaps in lower-case rather than CAPS. This author agrees on both fronts, but thinks that by far the most important thing is to reduce the amount of visual noise between grid cells. Regardless, the problem is very precise: the grid needs to be easier to read.

Why is this awful? Perhaps it is already obvious to the reader: but Hive Minds ought to stand strong on its play-along value. Few viewers will have knowledge comparable to the on-screen players, (some may, of course) but the Hive - like the lateral thinking on OC, or, to a lesser degree, the guessability of questions on UC - serves as a great leveller, allowing the uninformed to, occasionally, feel the satisfaction of accomplishing a great move just like the ones they see the teams pull-off in the studio.

The terrible graphics massively reduce this appeal, and so reduce the appeal of the whole show, but in particular the appeal to the casual viewer. I would argue that OC saw its audience grow, not by becoming more mainstream in its question matter, but by making the lateral thinking gradually a more important part of the programme than the general knowledge. Hive minds will struggle to pull in a less BBC4-ish viewer if it can't do something along the same lines.

Anyway, we arrive at round 1: the answering some questions round. The questions are usually combine two different (or quite different) fields in a way which allows for a lot of false-leads to be set in the hive. And lots of false-leads are set. Over time the grid diminishes, as do the points, and teams buzz in to stop their individual clock before answering, much like that other programme. Incorrect answers are handed over with all clues revealed for just 1 point, much like... you get the idea.

Throughout, except for a 1 second flash at the start, the grid is presented at the bottom of the screen, at about 1/3 the size it is when in 'full'. This is too small, and combines with the problems mentioned above about readability. 

A R1a question in progress.
Onto round 1b: after two normal questions, the teams get two double questions: this time there are two answers in the hive: you might be looking for an inventor and their invention, an artist and their work, etc. This is immediately harder because two answers need to be located in the hive, and also subtlety harder because the questions are now of the sort to not have a unique pair of answers, so scanning the hive *will* be necessary.

These questions are no less fun for the audience, but they are definitely going to result in fewer points in general, so it feels wrong for them to be coming second*.

A R1b question in progress.

Onto round 2: here hives will contain three answers, again from a larger set of possibles. Instead of decreasing points-over-time, this round offers 1 point per answer found in 45 seconds (although an incorrect submission will end the time immediately), and instead of letting them talk like normal participant, the team are separated to 3 podiums, where they all stare downwards and pass control around confusingly until the time is up. The studio is too small for both teams to do this at once, and the choosing of categories requires they alternate, so we see 3 awkward changeover cuts, not done nearly as well as they are on... yes.

This is apparently almost all of the Hive Minds studio.
This round irritates the reviewer a little, because we don't see any reason it is more entertaining than the first round. Sure, it's different, and one would likely criticise for a lack of variety if another round of straight questions were played... but the twist here of separating the teams isn't adding anything for the audience - it's just a quieter version of the questions we saw before, only with one more answer.

Round 3 is the Superhive, and teams are asked if they want the A-hive or the B-hive, a much better joke than water-wall ever... anyway. The aim here is to find answers to a category in a larger hive. This time the team work together to keep things thematically different from round 2, and there's an extra challenge: the answers have to completely fill the grid, using every letter exactly once. This seems about as difficult as sorting 16 clues into 4 connected... never mind - but it *is* made more difficult in a key way.

The Hive wall Superhive.
On the connecting programme, correct-looking incorrect wall guesses exists: often a set will have 5 potential members, often a faux-set of 4 will exist among the others. This is distracting, but the distraction is no more than a "ooohh yes... oh no!" back-and-forth: it can happen a few times and it doesn't set the team back very much at all if they set off on the wrong path.

Contrast the Superhive where again there are false leads: potentially correct answers that don't fit into the perfect solution but do fit into the chosen category. However, there is no intermediate feedback - a wrong answer entered into the grid will stay put, and cause problems with trying to find other answers later on. Teams can manually erase the answers, but the time taken to realise they've made a mistake is lost. Here the process of realising is more "hmmmm... maybe.... hmmmmm... no, this can't be it".

There are problems with doing things this way: it's frustrating for the audience and team, and it's somewhat unfair: luck can be a big factor in noticing the right answers first. There is some skill, for both viewer and player, in the knack of being able to figure out that a configuration is truly impossible, which is a bit of fun, and I think this could be an 'interesting difference' rather than a 'bad difference' as long as the difficulty of the Superhive topics doesn't increase so much that it becomes really difficult to recover from an error.

Round 4 is the quickfire round, and deserves real praise for a quickfire round that fits well into the programme - too many producers recognise the appeal of a speedy ending without thinking about this. In this round, single-answer questions from all topics are asked with the answers all being hidden in the same hive - that means, as Bruce points out, one may see the answer to a question before it's even been asked.

Here, more than ever in the show, the presence of the Hive feels natural and additive: the challenge of spotting words in the gird is affecting the q&a, rather than just complimenting it - sometimes you can notice an answer ages before the teams do, sometimes having spotted something will allow a player to make an incredibly early interruption.

So, Hive Minds. We have to present an overall opinion on Hive Minds with a few different perspectives: Is Hive Minds better than its sister Only Connect? No. Does it need to be, to be successful? Almost certainly not, and indeed, Only Connect has the massive advantage of many years of refinement. Can Hive Minds fit comfortably alongside Only Connect, perhaps, as comrade and not-quite-so-equal equal? Yes, and we think the scheduler's decision to have both shows start series simultaneously this year suggests that that is the intent: if you want to, watch both - if you don't, watch OC. That's fine.

Would Hive minds prefer to be assessed without falling into its older sibling's shadow, or, in other words, does Hive Minds stand soundly on its own? This author has a couple of concerns on that frontier: first is the overwhelmingly noticeable similarity to the connecting programme, which implies a lack of confidence in this area, and second is that really, really grating graphics package.

That's Hive Minds then. Like it (we do), or loathe it (you might), it's difficult to love it.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Joining the chase.

A quick remark that this blog would like to be able to say "I told you so", as the first mentioned on our shortlist, Gambler and Only Connect Champion, Jenny Ryan, is announced as ITV's 5th Chaser, but to be totally honest, after compiling the shortlist, the author had begun privately predicting it would be Daisy Christodoulou. Ah well. 

A much sounder prediction seems to be that Jenny Ryan will do excellently in the role, there's certainly no lack of evidence of her general knowledge, nor, if you follow her twitter, her sense of humour. 

(2 minutes of 'proper' research actually yielded an enormous list of quiz appearances which the author poorly neglected to mention last time; including the impressive trio of University Challenge, Mastermind and 15 to 1).

They were all adopted.
There is no news yet of when Ryan will begin appearing on ITV, but given the rather long turnaround of the 'big two', it is probably unlikely to be very soon. In the meantime, one can sample Jenny's excellent writing on Feminism and quizzes here, and, this author imagines, learn more about her from a number of the more conventional media outlets when they get round to it. A longer conversation about in what ways each of teatime-rivals Pointless and The Chase can refresh themselves, and what effect Ryan may have on the two shows' fortunes is almost certainly due, but not today.