Monday, February 26, 2007

Miscellany: 26 February

- This week's X-Axis - feel free to use the comments thread.

- More dodgy TV phone-ins, this time with (of all things) Saturday Kitchen on BBC1. Apparently the show has been asking viewers to call in on a premium-rate number to ask question to guest chefs - even though the programme is pre-recorded. It also had a premium-rate competition with the announced prize being the chance to appear on next week's show - which was scheduled to be recorded that afternoon.

The latter is just about within the bounds of acceptability, since the intended prize was apparently simply the chance to appear on a future show, and they were genuinely offering that. But premium-rate phone-ins to a pre-recorded show? That's much more dodgy. The BBC's explanation is apparently that the chefs were asked the questions off-air, but that's a very different thing. They're also claiming that the phone lines were being run on a non-profit basis (not impossible, they could just be covering the running costs), but it still looks very bad.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror, of all people, spend a happy day watching TV quiz channels to see whether the questions have become any less insane. Quizcall, in particular, seems to be running questions that are just plain indefensible. Question: Complete the phrase "--- Water" or "Water ---." Answers from their list that, remarkably, nobody got over several hours of taking premium-rate calls: "rail", "milk", "raw", "orange flower", "welder" and "ouzel."

This is fraud, and if it somehow scrapes over the bar of legality at the moment, the law should be changed. This has been going on for years now, and Ofcom should have come down like a hammer long before now.

- Meanwhile, the Guardian rather overstates its case by claiming that "scores" of people have complained to the BBC about last night's Top Gear, which featured a train crashing into a Renault Espace in order to demonstrate the dangers of jumping the red light at a level crossing. The objection is that there was a fatal train crash on Friday in completely different circumstances, in which nobody died.

"Scores of complaints", in this context, turns out to mean 43. Technically that is indeed more than one score. It's 2.15 scores. Hardly a massive number, though, is it?

I've seen the segment, and I suppose it was a borderline case for the BBC. Top Gear long since abandoned any pretence of being a proper motoring show and turned into a bizarre comedy programme that occasionally reviews a Lamborghini. Some people don't understand this, and continue to complain about the lack of advice on hatchbacks. But it's a much more entertaining show for parting ways with reality. Last week they tried to turn a Reliant Robin into a working space shuttle. Now that's television.

Top Gear doesn't do safety warnings - and Jeremy Clarkson spends half his time ranting about the over-cautious health and safety types who interfere with his work. So the segment was a weird hybrid where they basically acknowledged that Network Rail had asked them to do something about level crossings, and then pretty much made clear that they were only doing it for the exciting crashy bit. Which they duly broadcast in loving slo-mo, while Jeremy Clarkson made mock-serious, completely irrelevant safety announcements over the top.

The segment ends with a shot of the ruined Espace, and the caption: "THINK! Always wear a high visibility jacket."

Now, that said, it was a pretty compelling demonstration of why you don't want to get hit by a train side on, and there was even a half-decent reason for choosing the Renault Espace (it has a five-star safety rating and it got ploughed to smithereens). I'd say that if you take the segment as a whole, it clearly is a legitimate safety warning, albeit done very tongue-in-cheek. I might have been minded to swap it with a report from later in the series if that was viable, but I wouldn't have pulled it.